Habit of Mind

12/04/2005 08:31:00 pm

Dean's recent post The Theory of Relativity got me thinking. Dean writes:

My recently adopted criteria of "Relevant, Engaging and Ownership" as a criteria for learning is definitely in its infancy. I've been saying that teachers need to address the ever popular question of "why do we have to learn this?" as part of how we do business .... I can agree that some things we learn may not completely link to our lives but offer a rich experience that will in some way enhance our lives.

He ends his post with:

So there are times when students may not see the relevance but we need to. So if you believe Calculus is going to be important for kids, make sure that at least you know why it's relevant. Stephen Downes says he's still waiting for it to be relevant. Not sure it will ever be.

That's twice recently that I've read the suggestion calculus is not relevant to student's lives. Lots of people feel that way. Whenever I meet someone for the first time and they learn I'm a math teacher they always reply either:

(a) I hated math; or
(b) I like math.

95% of the time it's (a). I think they've missed the point of what an education is all about.

I've been telling my classes for years now that by the time I'm finished with them at the end of grade 12 I hope they come to realize that I haven't really been trying to teach them math; I've been trying to teach them a habit of mind. Studying mathematics is just the vehicle for that purpose.

I think there are a great many courses we take that are not relevant in the way that Dean or Stephen describe. I also think that the educational value in those courses is the "habit of mind" they foster.

The relevance criterion will be a tough one. How do we determine that a particular course has no value? I think there is value in learning, no matter what it is you are learning. The value is in the habit of mind the learning facilitates. Each discipline facilitates a different habit of mind.

For all that, I think showing kids the relevance of what they're learning is to real life helps to motivate them. One question I ask my classes is:

"Y'know all those police dramas where the coroner arrives on the scene and says, 'The victim was murdered between 2:00 and 2:15 am.' How does she know that? Was she there?"

Well, one way she might have done that is using calculus to solve a first order differential equation. Let's learn how she did that. ;-)

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