The Hardest Question

What is the hardest question a teacher has to answer?

As teachers, especially math teachers, we face this most painful question all too often, rarely do we have a good answer to it, and even more rarely does our answer enlighten students. The question is less a query and more a bleating call for relevance. For students, it is one more reason to ignore or at best inattend to a teacher’s presentation. For teachers, it reaches into the deepest sense of who we are and what our job is. Our inability to answer it directly and cogently can feel like a failure in the traditional analog classroom where our primary role is threefold, present concepts and skills, develop examples as prototypes, and motivate students to attend and learn. Our inability to give meaningful answers to the hardest question destroys their faith and our ability to motivate.

I always found the effort to motivate learning to be the most taxing part of my job as a teacher. Learning is work, pure and simple, and to get students to learn we have to get them to work, motivate them by placing what they have to learn into context, making it part of an interesting story, providing a strong rationale, finding a reason for students to care, or as the last resort bribing students with grades.

In our digital age the Web is the resource center, a library for concepts and skills. Whether the result of a Google search, a YouTube video, or Facebook connection, students today can find information, concepts, and even demonstrations of the skills they are to learn. The traditional roles we long assigned to teachers as presenter and prototyper are now generally obsolete. (Technology has even replaced most of the traditional teacher evaluation role with computerized high-stakes tests.) The motivator role remains, which brings me back to the hardest question teachers face all the time.

“Why do I have to learn this?”

Difficult, if not impossible to answer in the traditional analog classroom, it can be even more painful in a digital one that follows the traditional form, because in this time of accelerating change, amazing tools, the Web as an infinite library, and cell phones as communicators, our usual answers are all too often irrelevant!, Therefore, in the digital age, the student who has to answer the hard question. The student has to find his or her own meaning, we cannot give it to them. And to do that the student obviously has to have interesting assignments and choice.

The only way I know to give students interesting choices is to make our assignments project-based! So when you next get that hard question, think digital and think Project-Based-Learning.

One comment

  1. steveb says:

    Given that my children are now having children I’m completely out of touch with today’s school age students. The closest I come are the MIT students I mentor. Traditionally schools have relied on extrinsic motivators: the carrot (get a gold star!) and the stick (fail this course and you may be held back, your parents will be angry with you, you may have to attend summer school, you may not get into a good college. Teachers need caddies to carry all those sticks! Time has shown these and other extrinsic motivators are not very effective. So what intrinsic motivators might work? Curiosity, for one. Can a lesson be planned to stimulate innate curiosity? Competition for another, As I understand it kids are very competitive when it comes to video games. Everyone monitors the leaderboard. And pride of accomplishment is another. I blogged about this subject: The virtue of pride Finally creating an environment that can stimulate intrinsic motivations. Get students out of the industrial age rows and columns in small groups in circles. Let students compete to lead their circle. Provide problems to solve that are relevant to the news of the day, whether that computing the mean, median and mode of the top celebrity salaries of the year; baseball is filled with hundreds of statistics that can be turned into problems from ratios the power law distribution. I wager most children have some interest in money – there are zillions of problems in personal finance. Well enough from this non-teacher!

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