Why Can’t We All Just Get Along?: Some Inquiry Math Classes are not Content-less

Maybe it’s just how I am, or maybe I’m just always worried about what people are going to say about me, but I am hesitant to criticize other teachers publicly in the blogosphere. I’ve always felt this camaraderie with others once I’ve learned they were a teacher even if we are very different from each other – different disciplines, different pedagogical styles, different countries – there are still fundamental commonalities that even public and private school teachers have.

I just finished reading a KQED blogpost entitled “Do You Have the Personality to be an Inquiry-Based Teacher?” that sort of summarizes the theoretical qualities that the author feels a teacher who would teach with IBL would need to exhibit in order to successfully run a classroom. It’s kind of interesting – I’m not sure I agree with it, but respect the author for putting his ideas out there. I’ve been an inquiry/problem-based teacher for almost 20 years and I don’t think I exhibit all of the qualities listed, so I’m not sure it’s quite true.

Anyway, that’s not the point – at the end of the blogpost there are about 11 comments from people who are educators and many of them are quite negative and even degrading to the author:

“I earned a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology, but phrases like this one still baffle me: “…the divide between a transmission model and an inquiry model…” ”

“First, we need to make sure that we have at least a rudimentary understanding of the language in which we will be teaching. Second, we need to make sure we can write.”

“That is what’s wrong with you teachers.You want to do it your way.”

“Some of us have been doing this for decades, where were you?”

Whoa, Whoa, Whoa…cowboys…hold your horses. This guy is just writing an essay about something he believes in. What kind of role model are we being for our students if this is how we are reacting to something we don’t agree with? What happened to civil communication? I totally agree that people are allowed to comment and voice their opinions on someone else’s opinion, but there has to be a way to do it with respect and decency.

So I am going to try to model what I would like to see as a response to something I actually do disagree with. Here is a blogpost by a very respectable Professor in Canada, who I have to be totally honest, I do not know at all. I tried to learn as much as possible about him before writing a response to his blogpost in order not to make any assumptions about him (and not make a fool of myself in doing so), so I may be wrong about some of this information because I garnered it from different websites. It seems he is a research mathematician who is currently studying to get a teaching degree, but who lectures for mathematics courses at the college level. I cannot ascertain if he has any experience teaching at lower levels (like elementary or secondary). From his blogpost it does seem like he takes pride in the amount of background research he does, which again is very respectable and I appreciate in bloggers. He seems to care a lot about student learning and from his opinions on his blog he seems to lean towards being a behaviorist and cognitive theorist in terms of learning theories.

His latest blogpost is titled “The Content-less Curriculum” and it is a critique of the movement towards 21st Century skills being a part of the mathematics classroom. It does sound like Prof. Penfound is implying that with the inclusion of “soft skills” of collaboration, critiquing others work, problem solving,communication, etc. (i.e. the MPS for the CCSS) there must be a loss of mathematical content. In fact, he says that

“there must be a trade-off for the inclusion of “soft skills” activities into an already packed curriculum. So what gets removed from the curriculum then? Content knowledge.”

I would respectfully, but wholeheartedly disagree with this. By teaching with the PBL curriculum that I use, I have all of the college prep geometry curriculum I desire and I also concurrently am assessing and teaching the skills of problem solving and the so-called “soft skills” that he is implying are an add-on. I still give quick quizzes to make sure that students are up on their basic skills that are so important for basic problem solving (or else they wouldn’t be able to do the open-ended problems they are given). ┬áThe mathematics that students leave my courses having experienced is rich and leaves an impression on the way they think.

Making blanket statements about teachers implying that we all make choices that are not based in research or good practice is just not true. I actually invite you Prof. Penfound to come visit my classes and see my IBL/PBL classes in practice and let me know what you think of your opinions of the rigor of the mathematics that is discussed. Although we are most likely at different ends of the spectrum in terms of learning theories, I do believe that students have different needs and try to work with kids’ learning needs individually. However, I do believe as @danieldmccabe does that there are going to be new outcomes required of our ever-growing diverse body of graduates in the near future (or even present). I also have to say that I have thought rather thoroughly about the implementation of a teaching program which includes “soft skills” and even wrote a dissertation on it.

It is possible to balance content and practice skills and it is what I and many other classroom practitioners strive for. I do not deny that there are some practitioners out there that are confused about what problem-based and project-based learning outcomes should be especially with regard to secondary mathematics, but that is a subject for another blogpost. ┬áThe balance between content and practice skills we should strive for does not mean that one is more important or less important and in fact they both need to be assessed with the ultimate goal being to create independent problem solvers. From my experience this does not necessarily happen in a classroom where the educator does not take into consideration the so-called “soft skills.” But that statement is, of course, based on my 25 years of anecdotal classroom experience.


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