Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Why am I teaching this?

This post has nothing to do with MinecraftEdu or games in education. This post is a reflection and question for those educators out there reading this.

This year I am teaching Year 10 Maths, the general kind, for those students going into the 'lower' level maths at Year 11, in our system this is called General Maths and then in Year 12 students can continue with their Mathematical studies by doing a subject called Further Maths. This is still a subject in which students can achieve quite highly and it is generally not looked upon as "veggie maths" or "dumb maths".

In this Year 10 class I have a student who wants to become a lawyer, now this is a great goal to have, however this student it also blind. Which in itself is not a problem for me, I have been teaching him pretty much each year since he started at our school, so my teaching practice has changed over the time to be less note on board like. Again not a problem.

Our VCE General/Further Maths course may include the topic of Geometry and Trigonometry and I am currently trying to teach this to this student. Things like area, total surface area and volume of both simple and composite shapes. Now I know that he is very likely to need a good understanding of this topic to score highly in his year 12 studies, but he is struggling to 'get' the more advanced composite shape things because of course he cannot 'see' the shapes. He has the shapes 'drawn' for him in a way that allows him to see them but he cannot decode those diagrams and break the composite shapes down into their parts so that he can work out the volume or total surface area.

So one of my issues is this, he is never going to need to do this in real life, as a lawyer, the only thing he needs this for is to 'pass the test' and get started on the journey to becoming said lawyer. So why bother teaching a concept that he is struggling to comprehend and that he is never going to use 'in real life'.

This was a discussion I had with his aide at school just yesterday, and this is where I think my 3D printer is going to help, at least somewhat. I have, using 123D Design, designed all the parts of the questions we have covered about composite shapes in the last few days and am currently printing them off on my printer. It took about 10-15 minutes to get the shapes designed (now that I know a bit about the program) and it is going to take approximately 30 minutes to print them off and about 14g of plastic, for a total material cost of about $1.40.

Now this is great for getting the concept home for this student about these questions, but he is not going to have this 'help' with the shapes he sees for his final exams at the end of Year 12. So am I doing him a service or disservice? I honestly do not know, now I do know that what I am doing is going to help him get the concept for these particular shapes, and is definitely going to clarify for him the discussions we have had and the explanations I have given him, so he is not going to be any worse off for me doing this and only time will tell if it helps him in the long term.

But my real question at the moment is, how much of the teaching we do is aimed at 'passing the test' and how much of what I do is aimed at real life useful 'stuff'? I have a syllabus and a course to get through designed by someone who got paid to make it and who decided (I have no idea how) that these topics are relevant and needed by people to be functioning members of society. So what do I do, continue teaching to the test, or try to teach students how to think? I know what I would prefer, but how do I go about it?

How can I effectively say I don't care if you learn this, what I care about is if you can learn this and how do I assess and report on it? But most importantly right now, how can I help this particular student now so that he can more easily achieve what he wants in the future? Your thoughts, feedback and comments would be greatly appreciated, as would sharing this post with other educators so that I can get a broader opinion on this issue. Thanks.


  1. Elfie,

    I love this, and while I was reading I found myself asking "why don't you give him solids to feel and manipulate so he can better understand the shapes?"

    And then you did.

    I, like you, am struggling with this issue of how and why he will need to do this on a final test. You actually used the phrase "the shapes he sees for his final exams." Will he SEE them? Is he being forced to take traditional exams despite his inability to visually perceive them? Does he have any vision at all? How on earth can they expect this student to take a traditionally administered exam? That's a bit like screaming at a person in a wheelchair to get up and run faster, isn't it?

    I am frustrated by the teaching to the test that happens all over, especially for those topics that will not be a crucial part of the learner's future life. I understand that a well-rounded education is essential, but are scores on tests really going to guarantee that? And what about students for who the test cannot measure their learning simply because they cannot perform the test in its given format?

    I am especially frustrated by this because while my son has no major learning differences or diagnosed learning disabilities, and all his senses work just fine (it would seem), he does do poorly on tests due to some documented learning issues: limited short-term visual memory and poor visuomotor coordination. You want to make my kid feel stupid? Make him take a written test. On anything. He generally gets things wrong even when he knows the answers.

    I think that to help your student experience the geometry through tactile models is a wonderful idea. And someone should point out to the people requiring him to take a written test with visuals he can't see that they're asking him to do something the rest of the students would have to be blindfolded to make the playing field level.

    1. Hi Diane, thanks for taking the time to reply. The models worked great and your thoughts about 'teaching to the test' are valid. Now to just keep plugging away and trying my best to help this student achieve their long term goals.

  2. This sounds really interesting to me because I'm doing a project on how to aid blind students with 3D-printing in school. I think that if you could help him to understand geometry with objects it's good and maybe he gets it and can learn how to do it with out them with some training.
    I haven't started the practical stuff so i don't have any ideas for you yet. But please write more about this if you have any progress.

    1. Hi Knape, I will certainly keep updates coming when they are available, and I think having access to a 3d printer will open up a fair few possibilities for this particular (and many other) student(s) in schools around the world.

  3. I work at a Pre-K to 9 school which supports all the special needs students in the northern half of our province. This means we have a higher number of special needs students integrated into our "regular Ed" classes as well as many district run programs housed in our building. It also means we have access to occupational and physical therapy, speech and language pathologists, child psychologists, and specialists for the hearing impaired. I tell you this so that you know I am very familiar with the very same issue.

    We have an academic support position at our school, her job is to individualize student strategies and supports and work with the teachers to implement those supports. One of her most common dilemmas is what to do with students who are capable with support, but are not provided that support for government exams. Her advice has always been to teach the curriculum, period. Do whatever it takes, use whatever means possible, to help that child understand the concepts and build on the skills outlined in the curriculum. Our only job, as educators, is to teach the curriculum in such a way as to build up life-long skills (like critical thinking) in our students. It is not our problem that government assessments often do not accurately assess what they are meant to assess. It is not our fault that those government assessments don't provide or make allowance for all the resources the student actually needs to show what he/she is capable of.

    In my opinion, your first hunch was correct. I think it's fabulous that you can bring an extra level of understanding to your student because of your access to a 3D printer. In fact, I'm a little jealous. That would be such an asset! The more exposure your student has to creative ways of tackling tasks (like your 3D printing for his maths), the more tools he will have in his brain for the future.

    As a suggestion, perhaps condense your anecdotal evidence of his understanding and bring it, and your concerns, to your administration. Perhaps, with the extra time before his graduating year, something could be put in place for him. Perhaps a letter could be written with an explanation of his abilities to accompany his exam, or accompany him to his post-secondary pursuits.

    1. Hi KelticAngel, thanks for leaving a comment. My first feeling when reading your comment was depression, but putting that aside you make some very valid points, I should be doing all I can to help this (and all my) student(s) reach their goals, my new concern is brought up in my new post, the curriculum is a tool to use to help me work out what to teach students. But what do I do when the curriculum is 5 years above the level that the student is working at?

      "Our only job, as educators, is to teach the curriculum in such a way as to build up life-long skills (like critical thinking) in our students. It is not our problem that government assessments often do not accurately assess what they are meant to assess. It is not our fault that those government assessments don't provide or make allowance for all the resources the student actually needs to show what he/she is capable of."

      I really find this comment very confronting. Is that really our only job, to teach to the curriculum, as if that is the case I think I am in the wrong profession. I think our job is much more than that. Our job is to enable students to become socially functioning members of society, and yes critical thinking is an important part of this, but is geometry? I could think of much easier ways to teach critical thinking to my students, as well as many other life skills that they would find more useful then knowing how to calculate the area of a circle.

      And if it is not our problem that the government assesses students in a way that is not beneficial, then who does that problem belong to? If we as educators just blindly follow and do not critically think about what we do, then in my opinion we should not be teaching. As I think it is these thought processes that lead to improvement in practice, innovation and a better outcome for students.

      Thanks heaps for your suggestion also, that is a very good idea.