Mathematics, Creativity, Play and the Essence of Good Teaching

Last week Madeleine, one of my virtual friends who writes limericks, asked me if I would be celebrating Tau Day, June 28th. After watching this video, I think you will all agree that Tau Day is worth celebrating if only as a reminder that creativity is an essential element of education. Perhaps creativity is the essential element of education, (Would Sir Ken Robinson agree?), and play is at the heart of creativity.

Sure Pi=3.14159…, and it is useful to know how to calculate the circumference of a circle, but kids learn anything better when they experience it in the context of something real to them. You don’t really know it until you can turn it upside down, reverse it, negate it, and see what happens.

This is what is going on when we play with something. It seems frivolous because it doesn’t seem goal directed, but it is goal directed. The goal is brain development. Continue reading

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Why Mathematics is a Foreign Language in America and What to Do about It.

Today, when (and if) the sun comes out, take a child outside and measure the shadow of something, and say, “Today, June 21st, is the longest day of the year. Let’s see how long the shadow is. Let’s pick something and mark the end of the shadow so that we can watch the shadow get longer as the summer goes on.”

All sorts of questions could come up depending upon the age of the child and the interests of the participants, for example:

What could we use to measure?

Could we use one of Daddy’s shoes? My shoe, Baby’s foot,

How could we use a tape measure?

What is the relationship of Daddy’s shoes to my shoes?

What is the ratio?

Do we need to pick a fixed time?”

…and so on and so on.

It is common for parents to ritualize story time every day. This is a good thing. To read to your children before he or she goes to bed is the most important thing parents can do to ensure that their children will grow up to be readers. It not only models something that you value, it builds your relationship, and gives you a time to be with your child in loving, fun, calm, quiet, spiritually enriching ways. Stories are the staff of mental life and relationships.

What if we had a curiosity ritual? This week we play around with sinking and floating; next week we notice the flight of balloons, or the creation of bubbles. What if parents were ritualistic about doing a cooking project with their kids every weekend?

Why do Americans do so badly in mathematics? Because mathematics is a foreign language in America. The vast majority of children grow up in a number-poor environment. We’ve forgotten that the language of mathematics is founded in curiosity.  We too often think of mathematics as rules rather than as questions.  This is like thinking of stories as grammar.  Being curious together can be a really special part of the relationship in families. Continue reading

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Nine Lies about Academic Achievement that Parents and Teachers often Seem to Believe—but Don’t Really.

Nine Lies about Academic Achievement that Parents and Teachers often Seem to Believe—but Don’t Really.

Why do Americans want one set of things for our children and then behave as if we want another? Parents and teachers I talk to want their children to be self-confident learners who are good at working with others, and they want school to help with this.

Of course we want our children to read, write and learn the language of mathematics, but we want much more, too. We want them to learn the requirements of our family and our society and to become active participants—leaders, actually—in an increasingly democratic world. We want them to grow up with self-discipline, respect for others, critical thinking, self-confidence, resilience, a love of learning, and the internal motivation to make something of themselves. We want them to be people who take responsibility and make a positive difference to others, their community, and the world, …and the world needs people who think creatively—now more than ever.

When it comes to school, however, we often behave as if all we care about is test scores and what colleges our children attend. In urban systems our expectations drop even lower to things like “Our goal is for all students to be at or above grade level.” We are even blind to the obvious fact that such a goal is impossible and self-defeating.

Why? Fear.

When we are confident and courageous, we act as if authenticity matters. We trust the part of us that knows that success and happiness depend on pursuing your own calling and finding your own niche in society. We realize that great colleges are looking for leaders, people who think creatively and make a difference. We, therefore, act as if we believe in the genius of each individual child and encourage them not to lose sight of their own personal mission as they find their fit in society. We create environments at home and at school that value inquiry and are open to the wisdom of silly questions. Achievement is put in its proper place as a subset of learning. We have a sense of humor.

In an atmosphere of fear, however, our minds are taken over as if by an evil empire dominated by a social pyramid where life is a race to the top. In this model it is quite reasonable to be afraid that some children will be left behind. In fact in this model the vast majority of children will be left behind, and only a few will make it to the top—it’s a pyramid, right?

We seem to believe the many myths of this model–lies like: Continue reading

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Turning Power Struggles into Emotional Intelligence II

After reading “Turning Power Struggles into Emotional Intelligence” Lyn decided to try the approach and told me this story about her two-year-old daughter Uma: Continue reading

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Altruism, Leadership and the Learning Community

Matt’s team of teachers was tired by the time it came to plan the April vacation camp program. Matt knew it would be hard to find volunteers—everyone needed the vacation, themselves. Nonetheless, he put “Staffing for Vacation Camp” on the agenda for their weekly meeting. When this item came up on the agenda, Matt said: “So, is there anyone who wants to work this vacation?” Continue reading

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