Sunday, October 04, 2015

Marty teaches about mathematics and learning

My buddy Sam came home from back-to-school night at Wellesley Middle School inspired by his son's math teacher, Marty Wagner.  He related Marty's message to the parents, that mathematics is about taking risks and making mistakes.  He said, "If your kids aren't frustrated when they come home, I'm not doing my job."

In my undergraduate days at MIT, an esteemed mathematician named Gian Carlo Rota taught freshman calculus and put it this way when we were having trouble grasping a new concept: “Learning is overcoming your prejudices.” He understood that people are not really good at getting past their old frameworks of viewing things and in so doing have to work through the discomfort of adopting a new view of a topic.

Afterwards, you experience the joy and satisfaction of having learned the new item and find yourself on a new plane. At that point, as noted by Cynthia Copeland Lewis, "As soon as you understand 2 x 4 you can't believe there was a time when you didn't understand it."

A key attribute of a good teacher is to have sufficient empathy with his or her students to understand where they are in the learning cycle--the initial interest, the distress of overcoming prior conceptions, and the pleasure of success.  In an email Marty sent to parents many years ago, he displayed that empathy and helped the parents understand how he was trying to teach their children.

We did do a lot of cross-country skiing this vacation, but having two pre-adolescent boys means that we also did a lot of downhill skiing. At this point it is clear that my two boys (9 and 11) are definitely better skiers than I. They kept going through the glades on ungroomed and extremely bumpy trails, in and out of trees, and kept pushing me to do the same thing. I would have been perfectly happy to stay on nice, groomed, cruising trails.

 Frankly, it's hard for me to get over the fear of falling. I don't like to put myself in a position where I might fall.

I think that many 7th graders are in a similar position. They are being asked to accomplish more than they think they can. There is more content, more homework, more tests, more new thinking than they feel comfortable with. As a teacher, my job is to push students to go down the hill, support them when they fall, and tell them that they need to go right back and do it again.

After skiing this week, I can really appreciate how scary that is. I have extra respect for the courage of students who do fall-- who can't quite figure out the homework, or maybe even get failing scores on tests, but then come right back, get help when needed, and figure out what they need to know to do well on their next test or quiz. 

We can expand on Marty's construct to the corporate and institutional environment.  If a key job of a leader is to help his or her place become a learning organization, a full understanding of the stages of learning is essential.  The key attribute of the leader, then, is to have sufficient empathy to understand where his charges are in the learning cycle. He or she can then adopt strategies that will help them move to the next stage, both individually and collectively.

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