A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I was a high school student (yes, the automobile existed).

The thing is–I was taught a certain way with classes and that method still exists.  Why?

Think about your math class and how it worked.  A teacher explains what’s in the book, puts a couple of examples up on the board, calls on people to do them, corrects them, and then move on.  For class the next day, you are assigned problems 1 through14,194 on the next five pages.  The next day, the teacher colleges the answers while you get the previous days results.  Repeat this for 150-ish days and then move on to the next math class.

So…how do you approach this as a student?  First, you daydream in class because watching people do problems on a board is boring.  Second, if you don’t get the concepts, you don’t do the work at all.  If you DO understand, you’ve got it by problem 20 and the remaining 14,174 are busy work.  To guarantee a 50%, students will look up the answers in the back of the book for the odd numbers and put those down and guess on the rest.  Smart students will divvie up the remaining 7,087 even-numbered questions, do a few hundred each, then share the answers with one another.

Kids are learning–but not what they are supposed to.  Do you know anyone who didn’t copy the odd-numbered answers at some point?  Know anyone who thought 1,000 questions was a fair amount to show understanding?

It isn’t.  Worse, it turns people away from the subject (in this case math).  We turn a learning opportunity into a grind.

Here’s a graph showing the value of repetition for learning.  Initially, repetition is great, but as you understand the concept, the peak comes quickly and after that…well, that’s when carelessness gets in the way.  And yet–teachers assign make-work for classes regularly.

There’s a couple other issues causing problems here.

1 – Evaluation is now done based off of class success on standardized exams, not critical thinking.  Thus it becomes more important to get the mechanics correct via rote memorization.

2 – Teachers don’t know how to relate material to kids.

#2 is what happened to me with math.  At some point, all it was was letters on a page with no real world application.  You hear that all the time: “I don’t use math in my life. ” But you do.  When your toddler starts running towards the street, you don’t run exactly where the kid is currently standing, you take an intercept course to cut them off–that’s math, that’s geometry, that’s physics.  There are thousands of examples like this–including figuring sales tax, shipping cost per pound, etc.  When I got to college, I couldn’t understand some of the ‘basic’ calculus stuff..a friend (Brian Olsen) looked at it and said “Don’t look at X/Y on the graph…the left side is the power needed to keep a car accelerating, the bottom is the current speed of the car.”  Bingo–total sense to me.  Pity I didn’t have it explained that way five years earlier.

So if you are teaching, use real world ideas.  LeBron James scored 2,418 points while playing 80 games last year.  How many did he score per game?  Most boys will be able to figure that quickly–do that a few times and then transition the same rate calculation to other things like interest rates/whatever…then bring in the algebra letters.  Calculate area?  Use cake and try splitting it equally.  Ratios–those get used on every cooking show on TV, the internet or TikTok.

And this isn’t just about math.  Why does a chemistry concept matter to a 15-yr old?  What relevance does “Frankenstein” have to their life–why read it?  Does it really matter what the Constitution says?  Why do we limit police action with ‘Miranda rights’?  Why does the moon landings 50 years ago matter to me in 2020?   Education is about much more than memorization of details–we have cell phones and internet searches for that.  The responsibility is to teach critical thinking and concepts that young people can apply over the course of their lives and knowing why and how things work, not just that they do.