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The 20% problem

I want to respond to a comment left on one of my other posts:

I want the kids to learn and retain it for more than the test. I am a first year teacher, and my biggest struggle is getting the kids to do homework or even study for a test. Without a major makeup work date at the end of the grading period they would all fail.

I am in a classroom where the kids managed to get rid of 2 teachers last year. It has been a struggle and I am a teacher of old school. Do your homework, study for tests and above all use pencil. Take responsibility for your own actions. I some how managed to be asked to teach 4 different preps (every prep at my school but geometry). What was I thinking?

First, I want to acknowledge the frustration. Four preps is a lot of work. Kids who have learned that school is a “get rid of the teacher” game is work. A lot of experienced teachers would be frustrated by that.



The first thing that stood out to me was “I am a teacher of old school.”

My observation is that just about every person who wants to get into teaching math probably succeeded at the old school. It’s only natural that you want to do what worked for you when you went to school.

But if you start asking people, you’ll start hearing the same thing over and over again:

“I was good at math, until I got to algebra.”

I’ve heard that a lot. I’ve heard it from corporate VPs. I’ve heard it from principals. Counselors, history & english teachers. All sorts of people, most of them successful, and many of them never understood algebra. My completely pulled out of my ass guess is that only about 20% of us are suited to learning algebra the traditional way.

You can insist on doing things the old way, but you don’t also get to insist on being successful for more than 20% of your students1. If you think that’s okay, I hope you grade that way too.

Math is hard. Teaching math is even harder. We’re in a world where only 20% ever got it, and the other 80% think nothing of pointing that out to your students. It’s impossible to get kids interested in a traditional curriculum when your principal is willing to say to them that they never understood math either.

So, how do we fix this2?

First, to paraphrase Ms Vandergriff (my first department chair): You are responsible for what happens in your room. It’s not the kids, it’s you. That taking responsibility thing mentioned up there? Successful teachers do that. They realize that kids learn, or don’t learn, because of what they do in a classroom3.

Second, suspect everything that you do. If it doesn’t work, throw it out. I love the idea of homework. But, in practice, the only kids who did it were the ones who didn’t need to because they understood it already. So, until I can figure out a way to make it effective in my teaching, I don’t assign it. I used to insist on pencils – now I just insist that it’s legible. I’ve seen a very effective teacher insist that all math be done in pen – that way the students see a record of their mistakes and the corrections, and learn it’s a process rather than just getting the answer.

If explaining stuff to them doesn’t work, stop explaining, and start finding better questions to ask. If they’re learning from the make up work you assign, stop doing what you were doing, and teach the way you do with the make up work. If they’re not learning from the make up work, then don’t give them credit for it.

Finally, change one thing at a time. Try new things, but if you change too much too fast, you won’t be able to tell which effects are the results of what causes. Worse, your kids won’t have any idea of what to expect, and will act out even worse than they do already.

This isn’t a recipe for success. It’s a lot of hard work, and you’ll have a lot of failures along the way. Eventually, you’ll reach 30% of the students, then 40%. And at some point, you’ll look back, and realize that doing it old school isn’t nearly as important as figuring out what works.

1 That 20% drops to 0% if you’re teaching a remedial class.

2 Short of changing the way schools work in this country, which I am not going to even try to do.

3 Not entirely true. There are a whole class of kids who would do just fine if you throw them into a classroom with a textbook. These students are called honors students. These students are probably also the 20%. Perversely enough, a lot of the teachers who teach them get a lot of credit for not doing anything very special.

{ 4 } Comments

  1. Mike@pvl | January 8, 2010 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

    I’d add that taking responsibility for what goes on in your class room is a defining characteristic of the old school. At least based on the small sample of teachers I’ve talked to with twenty or more years of experience.

  2. sarahbeth | January 8, 2010 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

    Very good post! I started teaching 20 years ago (oh – sigh – more than 20). If I had continued teaching today like I did 20 years ago, none of my students would be learning much. We are not teaching students like us, we are teaching students in 2010, ipods, iphones, etc. We have to adapt to what works for them, not what worked for us. That’s why I spend hours making activities and smart notebook screens to keep my middle schoolers attention.
    Ms Vandergriff gave you good advice about the responsibility of your classroom. Thanks for passing it on. Thanks for the extra time you put into Math Stories.

  3. Chuck | January 9, 2010 at 8:53 am | Permalink

    Good Post…I teach at a school where kids have learned they can drive teachers out. I’d add always keep tissues in your room and have as many one on one conversations as possible to the prescription.

  4. Randy | March 24, 2010 at 8:29 am | Permalink

    Love this post Mr. K.

    Glad to hear things are going well.