Recently I’ve been reading this book, Measurement by Paul Lockhart. The book is about exploring math as beautiful, interesting ideas. It’s about understanding geometry through what shapes do and how they interact. I’m enjoying it especially because I know that anyone could read it: someone who didn’t have much formal math education and someone who had. I was imagining reading to my future kids as a read aloud book. My family was slightly confused by this, how could young kids understand a book full of variables, sines and cosines, complicated diagrams and the like? I tried to explain to them that is was all about the approach. One wouldn’t hand the book to them and say, “enjoy!” We would read pieces slowly and then discuss them and try to work out the extra puzzles. It would be a way to talk about the beauty and complexity of math in a really interesting way. I want to think about (and have those around me think about) math as a way to understand the world and as something so play with, rather than as boring calculations. I think one of the wonderful things about looking at math like that is, it’s very accessible to people of all ages and abilities. Anyone can play with a puzzle and working to understand the puzzles would allow everyone to be met where they’re at.
And I think it all comes down to one thing: Doing Instead of Doing-Over. As in, being the mathematician instead of the passive math student, being the scientist instead of doing the experiments that are written in the science textbook. Thinking, testing, wondering instead of being handed the answers for you to store in your head. I strongly believe that everyone can be a scientist and a mathematician and a geographer and everything else that person is interested in and wants to know about. This means solving real problems that haven’t already been figuring out, problems that are relevant to you and your life (or just fascinating in the case of Measurement).
All this makes me think about learning languages. Often times now when you learn a foreign language, the teacher talks almost entirely in that language. The idea behind this is almost an immersion, the way a young child learns to speak their native language. This again demonstrates the exact same idea. Being a part of the language, rather than starting by looking from afar at the conjugations and lists of vocabulary. I think that this idea is being adopted by traditional institutions is wonderful. I wish similar things were being integrated into other subjects more than they are. Let me break it down into some subjects with some ideas that would be easy enough to implement in the classroom and allow students to learn by creating and doing, not doing-over:
English: One simple way to frame this is having the students write for themselves rather than for the teacher, school or state. That might look like journalling (prompts are a great way to get the pen moving), stories, lists, plays, signs or any number of other things. A teacher could also encourage students to write things like letters (maybe even to local, state or federal representative to tie it into social studies), to-do lists, goals, notes on something they’re interested in, just the sort of writing that might happen naturally to any person of any age. I don’t feel as though I need to go into much detail with reading, suffice to say there are words to read everyone and to do almost anything you need to be able to understand them. Reading is hard to escape.
Social Studies: Well, as I mentioned earlier, activism is a great way to get involved in all kinds of social studies. Let’s say a student has an issue that is important to them and they decide they want to contact someone about it. This is certainly a real thing, no worksheet and answer book could take it’s place. So, first this student would need to find out who to contact. They’d probably need to learn some about the structure of government, so they can understand what sort of representative they should reach out to and what contacting someone would do. Then they might look at a map so that they could figure out who their representatives are. Finally, they’d need to be sure they understood the background and current climate of the issue so they could write an informed letter or email. That’s just one example, but there are so many ways this might happen that I’ll let it speak for how this might look for other interests or activities. Notice though, how close this learning is to the student and what they care about, and how this couldn’t have been done the same way by any other person.
Science: I’ve become a little stumped with this because science is so constant and in everything, I’m not sure where to begin. Beyond that, science is often the most hands-on, real learning subject in schools already. I’ll just give one example, because like social studies, there are thousands of directions this could take a teacher, all uniquely relevant to that class and town. A school garden. Especially is the students were involved in all aspects, from the planning to the planting to the harvesting. During planning, there would be plenty to learn about the times of year to plant different plants (and why), where to plant different seeds, how deep, etc., etc. Then, throughout the growing season, students would need to monitor the crops to make sure they were getting everything they need.
Math: Math is the subject most commonly believed to be difficult to teach in a real and relevant way. I started this post discussing Measurement. While that was certainly a good way to get this conversation started, I want to talk here, not about solving problems just for the sake of solving problems (which I think is a great thing and I’ve written about here and here). Let’s walk through a two examples based on some of the projects I’ve listed above:
- Looking at my writing about activism, I can see a few places that math would play a role. Students are writing or calling their representatives. Regardless of the topic, statistical evidence is a great way to demonstrate the things you’re pushing for.
- In the garden project, one could have students build raised beds, which requires measurements. They’d also have to study the plants and compare that to an average to find of how their plants were doing and when they should be harvested.
A really wonderful resource for all of this is What do I do Monday? (review here) by John Holt. This book is full of projects and suggestions for intriguing projects in the classroom. Above all we need to teach kids to be thinkers and doers.