Monday, January 19, 2015

Teaching the Love of Thinking and Discovery

This post is going to be different from what I've published here before. I'm not going explain something or attempt to be clever. Instead, I want to share an idea, an open ended kind of idea for which, at this point, I have no conclusions. First, let me share some background.

The other day I shared a TED Talk by Conrad Wolfram ("Teaching kids real math with computers") as an update on LinkedIn and on my personal Facebook. Please take the time to listen to this if you have not already. I think this is actually vitally important to the well being of our children and how they gain an education.

My friend and colleague, James Mitchell, made the following comment on the original update: "A great talk. My daughter's life would have been so much easier and better with this approach to teaching math. Wolfram talked about all her complaints." They were my complaints, too. A few of the comments made on my Facebook page included "Math is hard" and "I hate math. I never use it." Apparently, the same complaints are shared by more than just two people.

Curiosity photo by Rosemary Ratcliff, provided courtesy of

I've been thinking about this TED Talk almost non-stop since I watched it, and I'm beginning to think that one way to achieve the idea here is to provide mathematics education outside of traditional school environments. By that, I don't mean that we should advocate that schools quit teaching math; rather, I think we need to start providing private forums in which kids who are interested in math can learn math in the same way they might learn and participate in extracurricular sports or arts activities that are not offered in a traditional school. I'm currently convinced the program must be private and free from policy driven curricula that "teaches to the test" and arbitrary performance criteria. This is for fun, but a special kind of fun.

What if there were mathematics/programming academies that taught math this way? Maybe it would be a private academy for self-motivated kids who want to learn math, maybe offered after their normal school day or on the weekends. It would follow the approaches advocated by Conrad Wolfram, Paul Lockhart, and Kevin Devlin. It would not confer a degree, diploma, or certificate of any sort other than a letter that describes the areas of inquiry and completion of certain milestone projects that were self-selected by the student and mentored by the "professors." For older students, these projects might include publishing papers in journals as well as serve as the submissions to more traditional math and science fair projects. This would not be an after school tutoring program for students who want to improve their grades to passing levels or gain extra points on their college admission tests.

In other words, the immediate purpose of the school would only be to satisfy the natural curiosity of self-motivated students. I believe such an academy would eventually provide economic benefits to its students because it would teach both creative and structured thinking that the market would eventually reward, but the near term benefit would serve to remediate the destruction of natural curiosity created in our current systems and just simply help our youngest achieve what they want to achieve. I envision this as a kind of math zendo where children learn the art driven by intrinsic motivation and encouragement from like-mined but more mature leaders.

Of course, as ideas take hold in our minds, so do the doubts. I think the difficult aspect of this idea would be financing the program. Currently, I see the finances being provided in part by student fees, some voluntary time offered by teachers, and private donations. I would want to structure the student fees such that an interested student could not participate because they could not afford the fees.

Much remains to be considered here. Maybe this has been done before or is being done right now. I don't know. Regardless, I welcome any feedback you might offer.

No comments: