Monday, February 15, 2021

Good Book By A Good Math Teacher

Barry Garelick and I have been correspondents for some time.

He recently sent me a copy of his 4th book, Out On Good Behavior: Teaching Math While Looking  Over Your Shoulder.  I'm sure he knew I'd blog about it, and I'm just as sure he know that I'd like and agree with his observations.  

In this book he tells of his experiences going through "induction", a teacher's first 2 years of teaching and earning a "clear" credential.  He talks about his mentor teachers, the advice he was given, and his educational philosophy.  Page 9:

From time to time, however, most, if not all, teachers will answer a student's question by telling them what they need to know in order to solve a problem.  And most, if not all, teachers (myself included) feel guilty doing this, because we are taught that that's giving away the answer and we are handing it to the student, or to put it in more educational terminology: "teaching by telling."

I disagree with this and many other accepted doctrines of education....

I like this book already.  Let's look at page 10:

Ironically, despite teachers' resentment of the plethora of educational advice, many buy into the buzzwords and edu-fads, including "growth mindset,", "grit,", "critical thinking," "21st century skills," "collaboration," "creativity," and "open-ended questions are better than problems with one right answer."

You might wonder, how can someone possibly object to "growth mindset"?  Barry answers that on page 14:

I believe it's the other way around: success causes motivation more than motivation causes success.

Or, as I've worded that sentiment for years: self-esteem is the result of accomplishment, not the cause of itAll other things being equal, I'd rather have a kid who tries, a kid who will struggle with a problem even if the solution doesn't immediately present itself, but believing that merely having that tendency will lead to success is absolute folly.  Kids need to actually succeed, not repeat the mantra "I think I can, I think I can" and count on its repetition to make it so.

In this book Barry talks about evaluations, about professional development, about working with people who are not the friendliest.  He talked about "augmenting" the approved curriculum with material he thought would promote student success, about the "procedures vs understanding" dichotomy, about the (lack of) value of writing the daily objective on the board.  On every page I see someone whose teaching philosophy I agree with.

My favorite line comes from page 52:  

You don't have to like math; you just have to know how to do it.

On page 77 he mentioned something that I haven't consciously thought about but which I deal with often.  Like Barry, I believe in answering students' questions, although I sometimes answer them socratically in the belief that the student will make better sense of the material that way, because the method inherently has an explanation rather than just an answer.  He mentioned a technique he tried:

I've been thinking of giving students a choice when they ask how to do a problem or whether it's correct.  If I answer, it will cost them points deducted from their score.  I need to wean them from this dependence on my help.

His rationale? "[D]o they really need help or just hand-holding?"

If you've drunk the ed-school Kool-Aid, this isn't the book for you--it will frustrate you because the author doesn't mouth the platitudes you've adopted as gospel.  If, however, you want to read about someone who truly cares about his students, who wants to give them the best education possible, and who doesn't need ed-school jargon and novel ideas to make it happen, then Out On Good Behavior is the book for you.


Disclosure:  When Barry offered me a copy of this book, he didn't ask me to review it as a condition of getting the copy.  If we'd have disagreed on a large number of topics, I probably would have chosen not to do this post at all--or, I might very well have (respectfully) pointed out where I disagreed.  I assume he knew we'd agree and that I'd be happy to write a rave review, but there was no quid pro quo. 


Barry Garelick said...

Thanks for your kind words about my book. And no, I didn't expect a quid pro quo, and would have accepted (and respected) any criticism or disagreements.

PeggyU said...

Ok, I want that book. Having been a student (well, I have never really stopped being one), I have benefited from hand holding on occasion. So that advice of being hands off and forcing a student to reason through every step of a solution runs counter to my experience as a learner. In my job I am required to use the Socratic method as it leads to deeper understanding. While this may often be true, it doesn't work well 100% of the time, and sometimes working an example -or the problem itself - is the most direct route and helps the most. I am looking forward to reading your book! Also, I really hate that expression "critical thinking".

Barry Garelick said...

Just to clarify, the passage referred to on p 77 regarding answering students' questions (or not), referred to doing so during a test or quiz, rather than during a lesson.

PeggyU said...

Mr. Garelick - It hadn't occurred to me that you would give students answers during tests or quizzes. I will have to read the book!

Caroline said...

added to my list of books to read.