Ending Math Phobia

An engineering professor at Dartmouth College wants you to stop telling kids you’re bad at math. Excellent suggestion.

Why do smart people enjoy saying that they are bad at math? Few people would consider proudly announcing that they are bad at writing or reading. Our country’s communal math hatred may seem rather innocuous, but a more critical factor is at stake: we are passing on from generation to generation the phobia for mathematics and with that are priming our children for mathematical anxiety. As a result, too many of us have lost the ability to examine a real-world problem, translate it into numbers, solve the problem and interpret the solution. [my emphasis]

Of course, we don’t really teach math that way, so it’s not at all surprising that most people don’t leave school with that ability. They never learned her process in the first place.

Maybe if we taught math as a tool for problem solving, instead of asking students to memorize a long series of meaningless rules, we would wind up with fewer math phobic adults.

Just a thought.

Enlist Your Kids in the Cyber Army

If you don’t read the publication called The Hill,1 you probably missed a recent opinion piece pushing a new topic for our already overloaded K12 curriculum: hacking.

According to a professor from Carnagie Mellon University, there is a “critical national shortage of” computer security experts and the first thing we need to do to correct this is “promote hacking at the K-12 level”. “[W]e need a national push to build effective cybersecurity education programs.”

No. Just no!

He’s very right that privacy education is essential for kids. Most adults as well. I agree completely with his positive definition of the term “hacking” and that “we need to recognize that hackers are valuable”.

However, we do not need yet another program designed to solve perceived corporate personnel shortages. Too many schools have already bought into the STEM crisis myth.

Or one to feed students to build his college program, which seems to be an underlying goal of his proposal.

And I’m extremely skeptical of his conclusion that “we need to embrace hacking as an essential skill for kids to learn in order to keep this country safe in the future”.

Instead, how about going back to the original concept of K12 education? The one where students received a broad liberal education and had the opportunity to explore a variety of subjects, especially leading up to high school where they would have the option to take some vocation-specific electives.

Maybe “hacking” should be a part of that experience. Building a child cyber army to fight off the bad guys should not.

What is Instructional Technology?

The following is a slightly modified post I wrote for the Virginia Society for Technology in Education (VSTE), our state affiliate of ISTE (full disclosure, I am a member of the VSTE Board of Directors). If you arrived here from that link, welcome. Please feel free to comment and let me know just how far off base I am with this rant. :)


A primary mission of VSTE is, of course, to help empower educators to make great use of technology for teaching and learning. Many of our members even have “instructional technology”, or some variation on the phrase, in their job title.

But what exactly is “instructional” technology? As opposed another variety of tech, like the 1977 Ford Pinto.

Ask around and you’ll probably get many different answers to that question, but, since this is my post, here is my twitter-length definition:

That would exclude the student information system many teachers use every day. Certainly the online grade book, attendance system, and other tools in most SIS packages is an essential part of classroom management. But it’s not used by students in any part of their learning.

We also drop the learning management system (LMS) many districts provide for their teachers. Think Blackboard, Edmodo, or Google Classroom. Also not “instructional” technology.

I suppose you could make the case that students might use parts of some LMS directly for their learning (a blogging tool, for example). But that’s not how they are commonly used. Most LMS function as organizational and distribution systems for content pushed to students, again to improve classroom management.

Also not “instructional”: response tools (Kahoot, Socrative), interactive whiteboards, video tutorials (Khan Academy), and a long, long list of curriculum games. Although I’ve seen a few (very few) special cases, student interaction with these resources is almost always as consumers, responding to material provided by publishers and teachers, not using them as creators.

And for me, that is the fundamental component for any technology to be considered instructional: control. When I say “directly by students”, I expect them to have some meaningful control as to how the technology – device, software, website, whatever – is used in the learning process.

So, what would I consider some examples of “instructional” technology?

That word processing program most students use would count, but only if they have some decision about what they will write. It would be even better if their writing was connected to the web, allowing them to present their ideas to a larger, more meaningful audience. One without a red pen.

We could include one of those slide show presentation programs, but only if the student has some control over the content. And again, let’s extend that control and let them determine the tools that will allow them to best explain their ideas to an audience beyond the walls of their classroom.

Then there are the devices that many students bring to school everyday, the ones that too many of their teachers still consider as the antithesis of “instructional”. Beyond providing access to vast amounts of information, those so-called phones are also powerful creative tools that can be used to record, edit, and distribute still images, audio, and video. Tools students can use in many, many ways to communicate their thoughts, ideas, and learning.

Of course, all of the above is only my opinion. But what do you think? How would you define “instructional technology” (or it’s shorter, equally vague sibling “edtech”)? Tweet your ideas to @timstahmer and @vste and let’s have that conversation. Or post a longer comment to this post on my blog.

Because in the end, the terminology we use when discussing these issues – with our colleagues, the community, legislators – does matter. We must be very clear when advocating for the use of technology in our schools and why it makes a difference for students.

Teaching How To Fail Shouldn’t Be An Option

This is just a short rant about something that’s been buzzing around my head for a while. Feel free to ignore it.

Over the past few months, at several conferences, in a webinar or two, in more than a few articles, and in a long Twitter discussion, I’ve heard some variation of the “it’s ok to fail” trope. Usually accompanied by the idea that we as teachers need to teach kids “how to fail”.

That’s garbage and we need to stop saying it. Especially to our students.

Failure is not a good thing. It’s not something that builds character. It should not be a part of our instruction.

Instead, we should be teaching students an iterative process that identifies possible errors and fixes the problems as they are identified. NASA calls that midcourse correction. Some relate it to design thinking.

I rather like the very simple way that Mitch Resnick from the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at MIT explains it in this creative cycle.

Creative cycle

Whatever you want to call it, the whole “permission to fail” business should have no place in our instruction.

The “Right” Way to Learn Math

In a short essay for a Canadian newspaper, a high school math teacher reflects on his work and wonders if it’s pointless.

I also don’t feel the time I spent helping students (mostly freshmen and sophomores) understand math was “pointless”. I do disagree with with his idea of “math as a gym for the mind”, that doing math regularly “keeps the mind active” and improves abstract thinking.

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Certainly there are aspects of studying mathematics that can help students develop their analytical skills, but most of what we teach in K12 classes is largely focused on memorizing and recreating canned procedures.

However, the writer of this particular piece is exactly on target with this assessment of what math education should be.

The “right” way to do mathematics is not to learn many techniques, but to solve many problems using the learned techniques.

The problem must come first. Then we discover what tools, mathematical or otherwise, are needed to solve it.

That’s how math is really used, so why not help students learn that process? Instead of the very artificial one that embodies the math curriculum in most high schools.