Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Why do we have to learn this?

How often have you heard your own students say these words? I've heard it from middle schoolers through graduate level. When I was a kid, I was told, “Because.” As a teacher, I know that if I hear this question, I missed something in my lesson – I haven't helped the students connect their learning to their own experiences or project how it could be useful in the future. Making learning relevant seems to be official term, but I just have the small voice of a 6th grader in my head, guiding my lesson planning, “Why do we have to learn this?”

So, this vignette is for the math teachers who might stumble on an English teacher's blog, and I swear, this actually happened.

I stopped at Little Caesar’s to pick up dinner for tonight (hopefully the health teachers aren't reading). The cashier was asking if anyone could tell her how to make a real number out of 21%, or what 21% would mean.

Since I had to wait for my pizza any way, I decided to enter the conversation. I asked, “What are you trying to figure out?”
“How much is 21%?” asked the cashier.
“Well,” I said, “If you have 21% of 100, that would be 21.”
“Okay,” said the cashier.
“Let's take some round numbers. So, think about paying tip at a restaurant. If the bill is 20 dollars, 10% would be 1 dollar, 20% would be 2 dollars.”
“Oh,” exclaimed the cashier, “That makes sense.”
“But, you can only know the percent out of something, so what is the something number?”
The cashier looked downcast, “We didn't make our upsell by 21%, but we don't actually know what that means.”
“So, how many pizzas were you suppose to sell?” I asked.
“10% of 77 would be 7.7, so 20% would be double that, so about 15.”
“We were short 15 pizzas. So, why didn't they say that! I like you lady, you're a smart customer. I usually use my cellphone to figure stuff like that out,” said the delighted cashier as she turned to her co-workers in the back and explained what being 21% short on their upsell meant.

As I got in my car, with pizza in hand, I wondered why math wasn't relevant to this person when she went through school. But, being the teacher I am, I wondered to myself how often I failed to make my lessons relevant to my students. Just recently I had to fly through 100 years of history in less than four weeks and constantly struggled over coverage (according to the official syllabus) and depth (teaching for understanding, my philosophy). It was like going to Baskin Robbins and getting to taste every one of the 31 flavors, but using one of those itty-bitty plastic spoons – you get a flavor, but not a real taste. If I felt that as the teacher, how did my students feel?

But, making teaching and learning relevant involves multiple aspects – student motivation, choice of content, learning activities, knowledge of students, projected future possible lives of students, teacher enthusiasm, and supportive academic relationships. Weaving these aspects together is the art of teaching.

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