Sunday, June 30, 2013

How Do You Not Know That?

A few things have made me think of the following this past week - the fact that students leave their 13 years of public schooling and don't know things people (some? most?) think should be basic. Then the people are shocked or upset or start thinking "the education system is broken!" "teachers are bad!" "what are they thinking!" "in my day, we learned these things!".

Some examples that I came across:
* Many teens can't read an analog clock.
* There are teens that still don't know their multiplication tables easily.
* There are teens/people that can't distinguish between (pick your favorite): your/you're, there/their/they're, lose/loose, its/it's, etc.
* Teens can't read or write cursive.
* Teens can't easily manipulate fractions.

I see these things in my students. I teach students in high school. I feel like I'm rushed to cover particular curriculum that is relevant to the course. I am guilty of shaking my head at their non-knowledge, but then not doing anything consistently to remedy the fact.

I can totally see how all this could come about. Let's take fractions, for example, but you could replace "fractions" with any of the other basic skills. These are taught in middle school (elementary?). It is very believable, from a teacher's perspective of knowing how things go, that, OH! It's time for the fractions unit. Let's spend our designated amount of time on fractions. Some students get it, and some don't. Oh no, we have to move on to our next topic for a variety of reasons. Too bad so sad that some students never mastered the fractions. Maybe we can practice them piecemeal within the next concepts. May or may not be enough. Flash forward all the remaining years of schooling. Fractions are either assumed to be mastered, or slightly reviewed, and maybe or maybe not mastered by the unknowing. Graduation day. There are students that don't know their fractions.

Then there are people that think, "oh, just use your calculator", or "no one ever REALLY needs to know that", or "I don't get it either! High five!".  Or, people don't say anything, but think less of them. But that just adds to the problem.

I don't know a fix. I guess if it was easy, it would be solved by now. I know I try to address fractions in ALL my classes, but I don't know if I give it enough justice to get EVERYONE 100% proficient. There always seems to be a laundry list of other things to teach.

It would be nice if there were passive ways of fixing this problem once it comes down the pipeline. For example, posters on the wall that you really don't refer to, but they're there for their perusal (see what I did there :) ). Maybe, just maybe the posters are engaging enough, like eye candy, that the students look at them periodically, and then absorb the knowledge eventually. I know you can't do this for everything, but maybe there are other such things to help.


  1. It needs a group effort from the parents and teachers, everyone taking it seriously from preschool onwards.

    One little ray of hope for algebra and fractions is the development of more sophisticated learning programs like Dragonbox.

  2. Hi Shireen. Just came across your blog as you were mentioned by Kate Nowak.

    First, I hate cursive writing. I don't use it anymore and don't think any more time should be wasted teaching it. We're in that whole digital age thing and kids need typing skills (or whatever new communication skills will be necessary when they are older).

    Second, I think that fractions can be taught better if they are routinely reviewed throughout the year after they've been taught. I use a warm-up everyday with several problems, and for my 7th graders, I almost always have one fraction problem on the board. This helps, but this review needs to continue through 8th grade and beyond.

    Thanks for the post! Nathan

    1. Just wanted to add my two cents here about cursive. The only reason I think you need it is to learn your signature. So students only need to learn how to write THEIR name in cursive.

  3. Marshall: I totally agree with you about the group effort. I'm wondering if there are some easy consistent methods to do this. And I haven't heard of Dragonbox ... I just went to the site, and cool! maybe it's something that can be used in later courses, too. Thanks!

    I don't know if I agree with everything you say about the cursive writing. Yes, we totally do more computer things these days and one of the most useful courses I took WAY back in HS was typing, but there are still scattered instances where you (I) have to write something out or read someone else's writing (honor pledge in college, letters from friends...). There have to be more. Anyway, I agree with your fraction tasks idea. I just have to get better at purposely imbedding them into all other problems as a matter of habit.

  4. I could totally relate to your post. My daughter is 14 and doesn't even try to read cursive. I don't really care too much if she can't write with cursive, but it really bothers me that she won't/can't/doesn't yet read it. It is like Yiddish, just because it isn't used so much anymore, so much richness is lost by not teaching it/learning it.

    In general I would have say that a majority of the lack of preparedness in students comes from lack of reading fluency and lack of reading comprehension. (and I HATE when the high fives come for D's or comments that support being mathematically ignorant...I want to avoid being completely ignorant in most cases)

    I will indirectly quote CheeseMonkeyWonders about effort and wanting information/learnings/teachings, it has to come from you.

    That being said, the school site as a community has to set the priorities and just nail them across all classrooms. A poco a poco.

  5. Hi Amy. You reminded me of another reason cursive should still be understood. I'm guessing that in college, papers and assignments are returned to you with the professor's comments written all over the pages.

  6. It seems that fractions are the beginning of a long line of things that teachers wish students could do...the algebra teachers wish kids could work with fractions, the geometry teachers wish kids could simplify radicals, the calculus teachers wish kids would remember how to factor...etc.

    I have a theory that fractions are the first time in math where students have to learn the can't work with fractions correctly if you don't learn the rules. Some kids can't/won't learn the rules. I know that if you truly UNDERSTAND fractions then maybe you don't need the rules...whoever figures that one out is going to make a fortune :)

  7. Jennifer: I didn't really stop to think about it like that, but that makes perfect sense now that you have mentioned it. When I think back on things we learned as kids, I am sure I probably didn't know why things worked the way they did with fractions or long division or such, but we just followed the rules and did them until they came without thinking. I guess the deal these days is the deeper meaning and the how's and whys of math to truly be "doing" math, which I think is correct, but rote learning and memorizing of things is either frowned upon or falls by the wayside because of time.

  8. The root of the fraction problem would be multiplication facts. Ultimately, they are all symptoms of the same problem. As a high school Algebra II teacher, the Common Core Standards are daunting. The pace required to just touch them all is so fast that honor students are challenged to keep up. The decision to remediate until all students have mastered comes with a sacrifice. If I spend time remediating, I then need to choose what I don't teach. I agree that using fractions or other important topics in warm-ups does help. Determining those "important topics" needs to be a vertical conversation. The things I see rock my students' world may not be what is emphasized in state testing in earlier grade levels. End of course assessments unfortunately are driving the show. Change the assessments then you will change the classrooms.

  9. Jodi, that seems to be basically it, right? Touch and go. And then when you introduce a new concept, you (I) don't want to muddy it up with fractions because I want to see that they GET the new thing and are not bogged down with old weaknesses that will frustrate the situation, but maybe that's part of my problem, and if I start the "muddying" maybe eventually it won't be muddy. Don't know.

  10. Sadie ... that seems to be a consensus opinion. But then I wonder, what about reading feedback on papers or notes from your boss?