Are Students Evolving or Changing?

The break gave me a fair amount of time to reflect on teaching and my philosophy of education. I was scrolling through my Twitter feed and came across this tweet from the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ):

While reading this tweet, I was struck by an interesting memory. In my first year of teaching in Omaha, back in 2004, the school I taught at had just implemented 1-to-1 computing with Macbooks. I had a student that year from China. After class ended one day, she and I talked about how interesting it was to watch how students were using the Macbooks in positive ways but also in negative ways. I asked the student what she thought about the computers. She offered a brilliant insight:

I think the computers are making the students impatient. It used to take a lot of time to look something up. All the students want the answer right now.

That conversation has stuck with me. I see this impatience in my classroom and other classrooms on a regular basis, whether it's students moaning and groaning when a problem takes more than thirty seconds or the students' body language revealing frustration or boredom.

Two years later, I was teaching at a different school, a school that has not yet gone to 1-to-1 computing, even in 2014. Even without 1-to-1 computing, the ubiquity of smartphones and tablets has had a profound impact on our young people. Personally, I wonder how different my school would have been with the temptations of Twitter, Facebook, and SnapChat lurking in the background. I am not saying technology is evil; I am saying educators need to be mindful of the impact technology has on students' physiology and psychology.

Joachim_de_PosadaOur culture in the United States is the embodiment of instant gratification. This has dire consequences for math teachers attempting to help students learn patient problem solving. Joachim de Posada discusses the predictive impact of studies on delayed gratification. Intuitively, it makes sense the students willing to delay gratification - those that push through and past the point of frustration - tend to be the successful students in school.


Back to the earlier question: are students evolving or changing? Technology provides the context for our students to literally stand on the shoulders of giants and answer more interesting questions that can profoundly impact the modern world. But with great power comes great responsibility. In nature, we sometimes see DuckBilledPlatypusevolutionary dead ends. Think duck-billed platypus. We want our students to be critical thinkers. To be problem solvers. And while it is convenient to rely on Google's search algorithms to find an answer quickly, we need our students to be able to analyze, synthesize, and evaluate the information they encounter in the world. It's not a stretch of the imagination to think certain technological behaviors we allow, like clicking on the first link on a Google search or citing only Wikipedia sources, are the evolutionary equivalent of a duck-billed platypus. I wonder what my students and their children will be doing in the 22nd century and how different the world will be. I want to empower my students with robust strategies to prepare them for this world that does not yet exist. What can I do as a math teacher to maximize these students' potential? Because barring medical miracles, I am undoubtedly preparing my students for a world in a new century I will not likely see. So what should be my function, my purpose for teaching students mathematics?

Awaken raw curiosity. Provide the context and vocabulary to describe the universe and everything in it. It starts with asking interesting questions and finding technological resources to address these questions. Michael Stevens is doing a phenomenal job leveraging curiosity to create teachable moments at Vsauce.

The spirit of the STEM movement is the interconnectedness between disciplines. Why we limit this 'interconnectedness' to only four disciplines causes me to scratch my head a bit. Mr. Stevens' video above references figures that cannot be measured directly with current measurement tools... but they can certainly be calculated. We can even compute how aesthetically pleasing an object is or isn't. What should the role of the math teacher be, then? What does this have to do with our students, and whether they are evolving or changing?

I think my best answer right now is to provide a balanced approach between traditional mathematics and problems from the world outside school. And for those items from the world outside school students may not have the mathematical horsepower to address, there is now a phenomenal resource to address both traditional topics and modeling challenges. Math teachers may experience some nervous excitement on the Wolfram Demonstrations website. I encourage you to check out the resources available on Wolfram Demonstrations.

Regardless what educational approaches we utilize, the world will continue to move forward. Students will continue to move on through the sorting algorithm that is school and the world will continue to realize the potential of students from many different school systems. What do you think? Are students evolving or changing? What can we do differently as teachers to prepare students for the future?

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