Saturday, August 4, 2012

The 2nd Law of Thermodynamics & the Purpose of Education

Frosted Cheerios are so underrated.  This has nothing to do with my blog, but I am thoroughly enjoying a bowl right now.  They are good and good for you!

In our last 504 class we had the opportunity to hear from and question a panel of former U of M Secondary MAC graduates.  The hour-and-a-half session was extremely informative.

The highlight for me was when we lighted on the question (loosely restated), “Is school supposed to mimic life?  Or is it supposed to be separate?”

Bring in the wine and cheese! (A French Bordeaux and a sharp cheddar if you please.)

Admittedly, we probably need to define a few things if we really want to have an intelligent discussion (i.e. what does “mimic life” really mean), but I have some general theoretical questions/postulates that might add to the discussion.

This is an enormous question with lots of facets that I cannot cover in one blog…but let’s start…

First, the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics states that everything tends towards entropy, that is, disorder.  This disorder is ultimately inevitable, but it can be mitigated by intervention.  (You put butter in the fridge so it doesn’t melt.) 

Does this law apply to our cognitive function?  That is, if left unchecked, will our ability to think and reason tend to disorder?  I am not sure if proof exists for this, but anecdotal evidence seems to suggest that it would.

If we agree that our natural human tendencies lead us to something we’ll call “disorder,” and if we agree that this “disorder” is something we do not desire (in general) then something must be done.

I would suggest that this “something that must be done” is the foundation for Education, going as far back as you want to in history, to the first group assemblages for the purpose of collective education.

Making a big jump (and feel free to question this jump) I would suggest that the purpose of education is to move kids (or adults) beyond something they already are.  That is, that their current state has the potential to be improved, for the betterment of themselves and society, and we seek to foster this “betterment.”

That is why I take issue with a recent New York Times article questioning the need for Algebra in high school. 

The question is not about Algebra itself, but what do we see as the purpose of education?  If we agree that the purpose of education is to move kids beyond what they naturally are capable of, then why wouldn’t we push them to learn new, and (gasp!) difficult things?

“Difficult” just means things that you can’t do it naturally.  It does not mean that it is something you are not capable of.  Push yourself!  And your students (appropriately).

I believe it is a mindset.  The SecMAC courses this summer has given a term to an idea I have had floating around in my head for many years.  The term, defined first for us by Ritchhart (still my favorite read of the year), is called “Intellectual Character.”

So while I agree we need to tap into student’s prior knowledge and schema, we do so only as it helps us to move them beyond this prior knowledge and schema to new, often difficult, places. 

Education is a lifelong process.  Grade school is a big part of this.  The purpose of grade school is to get kids out of their comfort zone in appropriate ways and move them to new places of cognitive and intellectual capacity, even if it is hard.

These are some of my initial thoughts.  A bit idealistic I will admit.  They might change in a year…who knows?

I welcome feedback and counter-arguments…please!!

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Math, huh, yeah, what is it good for?

There was a New York Times article earlier this week questioning the use of algebra as part of a standard high school curriculum.

Education writer and blogger Daniel Willingham wrote a strong rebuttal.

Both sides made cogent arguments.  Both sides failed to cover everything contained within the other’s arguments.  Such is the nature of debate.

Where do I stand?  We’ll…I’m a math teacher (soon)…sooo…

Hopefully math teachers still exist when I graduate.  I jest (I hope).

Being a future math teacher, you would think I would naturally jump to the defense of mathematics, waving my flag and brandishing my sword. 

Not so fast. 

This is not the middle ages any more.  We shouldn’t behave like it.  Yet sometimes we still do (see the Chic-Fil-A nonsense going on…please quit for the luv’ of!).

When a rational human being makes an intelligent argument, we need to think about it.  We need to weigh it…and make sure our biases are not on the scale.  Weigh the idea for itself. 

It is these arguments challenging our beliefs that end up defining them.  We should welcome this kind of questioning.  See if it makes sense.  Our own beliefs will be better defined and more useful as a result.  We'll find holes and weak spots in our beliefs (this is a good thing!).  

And if we have to change some of our beliefs?  Gasp!  Change our beliefs?  In the United States?  Don’t we have a law against that?

Let’s be intelligent.  Hear the man out.  Foster good debate when good arguments arise.

For the record, after considering the arguments from both sides, I don’t believe algebra should be eliminated.  Math is the balance to English and History.  All are needed.  One is not better or more important that the others.  That’s a whole ‘nother blog.