A Formula For Success


While visions of sugarplums should be dancing in my head, instead I am inundated with thoughts of foci and directrixes on parabolas, and unit circles whose angles and radians haunt my dreams. I want to be enjoying the spirit of Christmas present but am forced to patiently explain the nuances of mathematical concepts to my grandchildren who are being rushed through advanced topics by teachers feverishly staring down deadlines that won’t stop for the holidays. The mad rush of the season is as evident in classrooms as at the malls and Amazon distribution centers. Christmas will be here and gone before anyone associated with schools manages to catch a breath and this year I’m caught up in the insanity because my grandchildren are drowning in information overload and I have the tools to help them survive.

The human brain is capable of great leaps of learning but knowledge must be ingested in appropriately measured chunks and then practiced and reviewed well enough for mastery of concepts. When new ideas are presented before the old ones are completely understood the brain tends to seize up in frustration and the individual experiences a sense of failure that is only compounded as more and more information is piled on a foundation that is faulty. This is what I am seeing in my grandchildren as they attempt to balance unreasonable demands on their capacity to learn. They are literally operating at full tilt each day while falling behind in the race to meet the demands of their teachers. It’s not that they are lazy or slow to learn. The problem is that nobody seems to realize that they are existing on five hours of sleep each day while filling every waking minute with assignments that take far longer to complete than their teachers seem to understand.

One grandson recently took a fifty minute test in Pre-Calculus that was four pages long. He knew how to do every problem but ran out of time when he was only about three fourths of the way through the questions. He made one of the few passing grades but it was still rather low. The teacher chided the students insisting that he had been able to do all four pages in only thirty minutes, hardly a reasonable way to determine whether or not the students should have been able to finish in a timely manner. He has been teaching the topics for decades and he made up the questions. Of course it would take him less time than those who had first learn the concepts only a week before the test.

Another grandson who is generally quite competent with all things mathematical described the breakneck speed at which his teacher is pushing the class. On the last exam the class average was 62 and the highest grade was a low eighty. This is a group of hard working gifted and talented students who are members of the National Honor Society. It is not that they did not expend the necessary effort to better learn the concepts. The problem was in the pacing which required them to deconstruct all aspects of exponential functions in the space of about four days time and then take a major exam on the concepts. There was not enough time for them to develop fluidity in their understanding and, even worse, in spite of their poor performance on the test they had to move on to the next topic while still in a state of confusion.

Much of this insanity is driven by the demands of the College Board, a group that mainly focuses on testing, an industry that brings them great financial profits. They develop tests like the SAT and then create workshops and curriculum for both students and teachers. All of the moving parts cost money that fills their tills in the guise of being helpful.

Today’s successful high school students are leaving for classes in the dark, spending spending seven hours in a classroom, participating in another three or four hours in after school activities, arriving home in the dark, and then studying until well past midnight. They are exhausted and often confused particularly when their teachers and society view them as being lazy. Their frustrations are real and few people are taking them seriously.

Each teacher is in turn encased in a pressure filled bubble with the scope and sequence of the curriculum more often than not predetermined by administrators who never see the struggles of the students to keep pace. The classroom often feels like a long distance race across a desert that leaves all but the strongest behind. The teachers see the problems first hand and realize all too well that in the process over which they have so little control so much potential is destroyed.

Sadly schools have become political tools for individuals who have little or no understanding of how the brain works or what proper teaching and learning looks like. There is often a one size fits all approach to education that does not take the needs of each individual into account. The platitude, “All children can learn” is true but with a caveat. The rate at which they truly master concept varies considerably and in a reasonable situation they are not tested for a grade that defines their abilities until they are ready. The goal should never be to frustrate, but to encourage. Time and patience is a critical aspect of the process. Because we are each so very different it is a huge mistake to assume that a canned program tied to a calendar will work for everyone.

Our schools are in trouble not because they are filled with incompetent teachers and unmotivated students, but because they are being run from afar. Learning should never be a race. When it is not a pleasant and encouraging experience it changes minds in negative and unpredictable ways. It’s time we all speak out about the problems that we see and seize control of the process from politicians and businesses who do not know our children. We have to return to a formula for success, Good teaching + time for practice + attention to individual needs = Mastery. That should be our goal.