Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Struggling with Real World Learning

“Real World Learning”...not a phrase that I get excited about.  The concept of bringing a “real” element into mathematics classrooms is an idea I have always struggled with.  My struggles lay in a couple areas:  1-I am not an applied mathematician, so creating a quality project is very hard for me, 2-I struggle with finding “real” applications for the limited math skills kids have, and 3-time is always a premium.

But, before I even get to my reasons, I often don’t even know what “real world” it PBL? Is it a large, encompassing project? Is it dumping traditional assessments for a project?  Does it go so far as to question traditional course divisions, like Algebra & Geometry, for a more holistic approach?  Can something this potentially fluid be used as a common assessment?  Can you guarantee the integrity of the learning?  I always worry about preparing kids for the next thing--whether that is the next course, ACT, or a career.  Does a “real world” experience create deep enough learning (just as conversely does “traditional” learning) to be worthwhile?  Why does education always seem to be an all-or-nothing endeavor?  Is there some sort of balance that can be reached?

If I set aside the questions, the first challenge is personal.  I love mathematics because of its beauty and theory.  I have never cared or needed to know why it mattered or where it could be used.  I find the theories and manipulations of numbers, figures, and variables to be intriguing and beautiful.  Yet, I know very few of my students view factoring or proving trig identities in that same light.  I have always tried to “sell” math based on critical thinking, problem solving, perseverance, and college requirements.  I know the big applications and I can talk to them in general, but as far as real application, I do not have those skills or understandings.  This makes me feel very uncomfortable when “real world learning” comes up; I do not feel I know enough to do it well.

Even when I have tried to put aside my own feelings of inadequacy and implement “real” work--I come up short.  Application problems are forced and contrived; students do not see these as real work.  They are just another set of problems to be completed.  I have tried applications where we got into it, and I realized the kids didn’t have enough mathematics to understand and complete the task; this is a frustrating moment for everyone.  Or, once I have adjusted the concepts enough to be accessible, the application is so watered down that it no longer feels real.  Often these projects feel like add-ons instead of integrated elements which then undermines the project.

The last issue is often the biggest one - time.  Every instructional decision a teacher makes has to be based on a cost-benefit analysis.  Adding something means something else must go--teachers always have to weigh the benefits of the learning to be gained with the time it is going to take and what might have to be cut.  I struggle with adding these “projects” because I have never felt the learning in projects is deep or real; it rarely feels transferable.  My department currently has strong common curriculum and assessments, so working in something new or different is challenging because I have to cover my ELOs and give the common assessments.

I am not opposed to changing or adding elements to my classroom, but I have to be sure that it is for the right reasons and the right additions to be good for kids.  Teachers always have to take calculated risks to grow both as teachers and provide the best learning opportunities for kids.  With our world changing so rapidly, it makes it so much harder to try to decide what kids will need to learn.  

Education is often all about the fad and the buzz words of the moments.  Some of these trends have staying power, some do not.  However, my path has always been to incorporate elements that work for me and my students and evolving out practices that no longer work.  I have never been a baby-out-with-the-bathwater teacher.  My entry point is to show kids the applications of scale factor in art and professions.  I hope to pique their curiosity about how math works in the real world and expose them to non-typical math careers.  This is a balance to the very structured curriculum my department shares.  I feel I can take time to do some extra work here and not compromise students’ time to complete the mastery work which has been proven to improve understanding.

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