How to Respond?

Yesterday my trig class worked on a genuinely interesting problem, but as I described what we were trying to find, one student asked that hated question, “Why would anyone want to do that? They could just ________________[insert non-math route to the same information, perhaps reasonable, perhaps not].” In hindsight I see that the student was actually enjoying class, that he asked the question not from pure frustration, but playfully, hoping to elicit fun banter from myself and the other students. And yet. And yet it just plain irked me to have prepared and presented an intriguing problem only to encounter this response in the key of whine.

Tell me, how should I have responded? Should I welcome the question because it’s an opportunity to make the case for mathematics? Should I establish a class culture that eschews that question in favor of more productive ones? Or should I put up with the question, acknowledging that I work in a high school and must occasionally partake of the culture of complaint?

Along the same lines: As a support teacher I sometimes step in as a substitute, which I recently did in the geometry class I “support.” This time when I convened the group they were attentive and engaged rather than giving me the wake-me-when-we-have-a-real-teacher-again attitude I’ve received from them in the past. But almost instantly upon deciding they respect me, they delivered the question: “Why do we have to learn geometry?” which exploded into, “I don’t get why we have to learn history,” “Yeah, and why do we have to learn physical science?” Fortunately, one student held everyone at the level of a respectable discussion instead of descending into pure lamentation (oddly, the student who led the wake-me-when-we-have-a-real-teacher movement is the same one who led the come-on-guys-let’s-keep-this-respectable movement), but really? How do I defend the worth of their entire education to students (all of whom have some kind of learning disability, remember) when my only instructions were to review the triangle congruence postulates? Sincerely seeking input.

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2 thoughts on “How to Respond?

  1. Great question. Wonder about this one a lot. I think if you can find a way to tie your response to something that they are interested in attaining, they may really buy in. I tend to make the case from the standpoint that it makes them better able to think and therefore better able to learn what they want to learn. I stay away from the “it’ll help you get a job/do well in college riff as much as possible because I want them to not do something for a reward in the physical world. The idea, for me, is to help them learn to understand that education itself is the gift of becoming educated.

    Answers like “because it will help you understand the world better” might not appeal to every student, but I think you’ll be surprised as to how many it will impact.

  2. Can I say, I love that you comment on my blog. My reason: your usual online persona is that of a lunatic, and yet here you are, commenting rationally on my utilitarian teacher blog.

    You’re right: I’ve never succeeded when I’ve gone with the college/career incentive, and in fact it narrows the incentive to only those students who were already thinking along those lines, who usually don’t need the incentive.

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