A carpenter I worked with once sent me to fetch the “board stretcher” from his toolbox after I had cut one too short. As I returned puzzled through a grinning group of contractors, he observed that “Any tool is only as good as the guy using it… measure twice, cut once.”
I never forgot this baptismal experience in jobsite training. Seems to me it applies as much to the field of educational technology as it does to greenhorn construction assistants. Since the 1980’s, technology has been dumped into the American school system amidst ever more fervent predictions of “The Revolution in Learning” it would produce. I’m not saying the Information Age hasn’t changed many things. Of course, it has…. and yet, it’s revealing to consider the things it has not changed – the sort of things that depend less on the tools than on the people using them.
“Garbage in… garbage out” is the searingly frank proverb that predicts the limits of technology to improve educational quality. Why don’t we get what we want out of our schools? Hmmm. What do we put in?
Well, we start by vastly underpaying American teachers and thus depend upon the inherent saintliness of any high performing folks who will love the profession regardless. We also attract some to whom a 25K a year starting salary for WYAO in a critical field looks like a good deal. I don’t know what the current stats are, but in the 80’s I was told that the average School of Ed candidate generally placed in the bottom third quartile of college students (That’s the 25% – 50% percentile crowd – not exactly the realm of rocket science.) But regardless, most of them are good people, with big hearts, interested in learning, who want to help kids. Okay. You go to war with the army you have… and we owe it to them to give them what they need to succeed.
Finland pays its teachers four times our rates and recruits from the top tenth percentile of college grads. And everything they do seems to work. But nobody is prescribing that recipe for the massive American educational workforce. And our top 1% (the ones who could afford it) seem to be doing everything they can these days to avoid paying for anything except the cheapest politicians they can buy. Lovely, but not my battle. So, what to do?
There’s an old Indian proverb that tells the story of an overloaded goat unable to carry a farmer’s bumper crop to market. The farmer’s options are: a) lighten the load… or b) strengthen the goat. Lightening the load is inherently distasteful – loss of money, extra trips, low efficiency, etc. In earlier decades we sought to increase educational quality through small class sizes and added instructional aides (thus lightening the load.) I’m not saying this hasn’t helped teachers but I don’t think anyone is completely satisfied with the result of that approach alone.
So, what about that strengthening the goat idea? How do you do that? I mean, really do it. For elementary and middle school math teachers. How do you cultivate a profound understanding of mathematics in them while also increasing their effectiveness to communicate those advanced concepts to students in an inspiring way? Clamoring for ever harder standardized tests and bludgeoning everyone when they fall short is just plain stupid. When did fear-based, negative reinforcement ever make anyone do better at anything? So much for Common Core in practice, despite high expectations generally being better than low ones.
Do we send teachers back to the same schools that trained them in the first place? With the same methods? That sounds like the classic definition of ignorance – same people, doing the same thing in the same way and expecting different results.
We actually need a new approach.
Peer learning through games is one of the most powerful, motivating methods in education. But you need the right sort of games to make the most of it… and the right methods for using them. The games should be comprehensive and profound so they cover the curriculum at depth, yet flexible enough for both remedial and gifted students. And the methods for using them should manage competition in a balanced way – it being such a massive two-edged sword. There’s no quicker way to reinforce negative attitudes toward math than to have a struggling student get pounded repeatedly in front of peers. At the same time, no more powerful inspiration exists than public triumph with recognition for performance at every ability level.
These are the hallmarks of the Instructional Gaming Program developed at the University of Michigan over a forty year period with board games like EQUATIONS, ON-SETS and WFF ‘N PROOF. Recently, while working with programmers to finish the online version of EQUATIONS: The Game of Creative Mathematics, I began thinking about how it could be used for professional development of teachers.
Teachers are incredibly busy. Usually, they don’t have the luxury of experiencing a learning approach in the same way over time as students do. The really cool thing about Online EQUATIONS is that it can be used to deliver continuing education classes to teachers, at home, in their pajamas, playing the game with peers at the most appropriate pace in a non-threatening way. I say non-threatening because matching wits in a competitive online game with middle schoolers is a daunting proposition for most adults. Who configures the phones in your household and downloads the latest apps and music? My bet is your resident IT wiz is under 18 and for good reasons.
So teachers need to play EQUATIONS with other teachers to experience the application of advanced math concepts at their own pace. And Online EQUATIONS is the perfect tool for that. It also lets them appreciate, first hand, how managing competition and reinforcement can be built into the tournament structure automatically by the program. All this translates to easy implementation with their own students afterward.
So there are enjoyable ways to expand teacher’s understanding of mathematics and give them effective tools to use in class. There is hope for American math education. We are disseminating Online EQUATIONS to schools for free and training teachers in their pajamas. It works. Call me if your school or class might be interested: 641-919-2466.