Saturday, September 20, 2014

Best This...Most Likely That

Post by Joe Buck: Joe is in his 31st year of teaching Mathematics at Bettendorf High School.  He still owns his now yellowing copies of the Core Standards for Mathematics Content and Core Standards for Mathematical Practices that were developed by a large group of college and high school teachers, textbook and standardized test writers, and members of the mathematics, business and scientific communities. You can follow him on twitter @josfbuck 

Back in the Spring of 1985, our students voted on a slate of superlatives.  Best this - Most likely that.  They included some teacher superlatives, too, one of which was “Most likely to be teaching at Bettendorf High School in the year 2050”.  I was doubly amused by the two teachers who ended up tied for the “award”.  One was a fixture, who at an age approaching seventy was not going to be there by the Fall of 1985, let alone 2050.  The other was me.  As a first year teacher, there was at least a chance that I would live until 2050, but I was quite certain that I would soon be teaching at the college level and be a distant memory around this place. 

Now I will most certainly not be at BHS in 2050.  But what happened to that college goal?  Turns out I loved teaching high school mathematics.  And, by the way, I still do!  I love the beauty of introducing kids to something as simple as Euler’s Formula (shown above) which can be understood best after mastering Taylor Series at the end of Calculus.  Or the infinite complexity and self-similarity of the Mandelbrot Set (seen below).  I love when something complicated looking can be understood as simple.  “Oh, you mean you just ?”  I also love when something that looked simple turns out to be so much more interesting. 

Just like my “favorite tie” is the one I am wearing today, so my favorite time to be teaching is right now.  People often assume that my field has been set for thousands of years and is fixed and unchanging.  Yet the first crude pictures of that Mandelbrot Set were only developed a few years before the first year of my career.  When I was in high school, I was taught about logarithms and my teacher showed us how we could use them to understand how to work with a slide rule to “easily” make arithmetic calculations.  Of course, calculators were already pretty widely available, so he didn’t actually make us learn how to use those slide rules.  That would have been the traditional course at the time, but it would have also been silly.  Technology advances continue to make a difference in what is most important for everyone to know from those centuries of mathematics. There is so much math happening fresh every day.  Much of it is completely understandable by teenagers.  And even when the math is Algebra and Geometry, where most of the specific things we decide are important (or Core, if I can use that word without it being a political statement) have been around for centuries, we learn more and more each year about how the brain works and how learning happens, making right now the best time to be teaching.  (And next year it will be then, we will have learned so much more about what is most effective.)

I have a student teacher this year.  He is enthusiastic, energetic, and excited about helping kids learn mathematics.  I hope for him that thirty years from now, the rush of helping kids see something today that they did not know yesterday, then understand it tomorrow, and master it by next week will still be just as exciting as it is right now, and as it was thirty years ago.

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