Give Kids Building Blocks, not Plans

I know that not everyone likes computers. I understand that some people are just not good at using them. Yet, the same thing can be said about math; some people are good at it, some are not. That doesn’t change the fact that mathematics are a required course throughout our school careers.

One of the reasons that have been cited for the teaching of higher-level math like Trigonometry and Calculus is that it helps students in critical thinking and reasoning skills. I agree with that, math can definitely contribute to the development of children and teenager’s minds. But over the past few weeks, I have came to a conclusion that sometimes math isn’t the best way to develop those skills. Let me explain.

In most instances in math, the steps to the solution are fairly obvious. You start with problem A and through a well-defined series of steps find solution B. There is only a few instances in my experience that deviates greatly from this. Granted, I have not taken any calculus classes, so there might be many instances of deviations in those classes. Why I bring this up is because it is my belief that true critical thinking and reasoning skills don’t come from following a series of steps, plug in this number in this place, then divide, then add, subtract, multiply, and the take the square root.  I think being given a problem, and figuring out how to solve it yourself is much more useful for both developing minds and the real world. I think students should be taught the techniques necessary to solve the problems, but leave it up to the students to figure out how to use those tools.

This has been growing on my mind for the last couple of days, mainly because in the last couple of days I have actually used my mind to actually think and reason for the first time in a long while. Let me tell you something, it is not some school assignment that caused this terrible state. No, it was me learning a programming language. I sat down and decided that I would learn Lisp, a fascinating language that has been around for a long time (it is the second oldest programming language). The project that I started: make a Roguelike game, and in doing so, learn Lisp.  I learn best when I am actually applying the concepts that are being talked about, not just listening to a teacher drone on about whatever the topic of the day is. I also didn’t pick up my copy of Land of Lisp, a very excellent beginner’s book on Lisp, and try to use it to learn the language either. Make no mistake, I really like the book, and it is very easy to read and understand, but its downfall for me was simple: it gave me the code within the text, and then it would explain it to me. I didn’t have to truly understand how or why it worked, I could just copy it from the book, and Boom! I had a working program. And me, being the lazy person that I am, would just do that, without actually “getting” the code. So, after accepting this fact, I filed away that book and after a short discussion with a friend on what to do, I settled on a roguelike game. I was hesitant at first, could I do this seemingly complicated thing, being a complete beginner? I stuck with it, causing Google’s servers to slow down from all the searches I was doing on how to do this or that. One thing I never did was google “how to program a roguelike in lisp.”  Instead, I looked up specifically how to do certain things. With that, and the code to my friend’s own version of the game (in another, entirely different language), I was able to write my own. And you know what? I learned more from that 8 or 10 hours total I spent on that project than I had learned from pouring over that book.

What was the point of that anecdote? During that entire time I was actually having to think, having to use every bit of my brain power to figure out how to do that. I didn’t have any step-by-step guide to how to do it. I knew what my end goal was, and that was it. I learned the different concepts as I went along, and was able to apply those to the situation at hand. Now, when I go to do something else in Lisp, I will not have to spend so much time googling various aspects of the language, because I actually learned the stuff. I didn’t memorize the various words just long enough to solve the problem at hand. By forcing myself to learn the concepts as I needed them, I was sure to not discard any information as irrelevant or unneeded.

I think that similar techniques could and should be used in school more often. How often, at the end of the school day, can you honestly say that you learned something? I don’t think that many of us could answer that question positively honestly. That, I think, is a travesty. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying any teacher here at SHS is not doing their job. I think it is more of a symptom of the way our education system currently works. Too much emphasis is put on passing the Standardized Test Flavor of the Month © instead of actually preparing students for life outside of school. Instead of in math class teaching students how and why something works, and then applying that to real-world problems, or even better, selecting problems that require students to use a variety of math concepts from across their high school career (how many seniors actually remember most of geometry?), we just focus on what we need to know to pass the test. After we are done with a class, we move on, and don’t revisit many of the concepts that seemed so important just a year or semester ago.

I do not mean to tell math teachers, or any other teachers for that matter, how to do their jobs. I can’t really blame them for the way they teach right now. As I said, it is a symptom of the broken education system that we “enjoy” here in America. What I am advocating though is that teachers try to add more “thinking” questions to their homework or other class projects/work, and less “regurgitate this fact or figure” questions. I swear, it won’t seriously hurt students if they have to use their grey matter every once in a while.

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About Joshua Dean

Editor-in-Chief of The Cub View all posts by Joshua Dean

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