Is Learning Math supposed to be made “Easy” by Teachers?

Posted: September 8, 2011 in Teaching and Learning Philosophy
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Many educators seem to believe that it is their “job” as a teacher to make learning easy. Teachers expend much time and effort to come up with creative ways to help students remember facts and and develop cute tricks to help them perform procedures.

It is my belief that a math teacher’s primary job is to help students learn by thinking through and solving challenging problems.  If a “problem” or exercise is truly a problem, there will not be a simple solution. To arrive at a solution, students will be required  to persevere, struggle, experience wrong turns, and take extended periods of time for contemplation. Major League Baseball player, Edwin Jackson, was quoted recently about the necessity to struggle in his development as a pitcher: “As long as you learn something and take positives from it, it’s alright to struggle. You’re supposed to struggle.”

In the September 10, 2011 article, The Trouble with Homework, Annie Murphy Paul notes that a common misconception about how we learn holds that if something is easy to learn then we have learned it well.  According to brain researchers, this couldn’t be farther from the truth! In fact, when we have to work hard to understand information, we recall it better and the extra effort places added emphasis on that information within our brain pathways. Psychologists have found the phenomenon of facing challenging obstacles in the learning process (known as “desirable difficulties”) that they have begun to purposefully introduce hurdles  into the learning process with amazing results. An example in the area of homework is something called “interleaving”. An interleaved assignment would include mathematics problems that have mixed up situations and problems, instead of grouping them by type. This forces students’ brains to work harder to come up with a solution resulting in students learning material more deeply.

Of course, we as teachers should not let our students flounder. Support is given by the  teacher so students are encouraged to try, fail, try again, and experience successes. We create an environment in which students can feel comfortable trying alternative approaches and have their classmates and teacher challenge their thinking.

Students are best served by this type of mathematics classroom experience. Our goal should be to achieve creating such a place.

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