Who or What Broke My Kids?

I am Desperate

I am on a desperate search to find out who or what broke my students.  In fact I am so desperate that I stopped class today to ask them who broke them.  Was it their parents, a former teacher, society, our education system or me that took away their inquisitive nature and made math only about getting a right answer?  I have known this was a problem for a while but today was the last straw.  

A Probability Lesson Gone Wrong

It started out innocently enough working on the seventh grade Common Core standard 7.SP.C.5 about understanding that all probabilities occur between zero and one and differentiating between likely and unlikely events which I thought would be simple enough. After the introduction and class discussion we began partner work on this activity from the Georgia Common Core Resource Document (see page 9).  The basic premise of the activity is that students must sort cards including probability statements, terms such as unlikely and probable, pictorial representations, and fraction, decimal, and percent probabilities and place them on a number line based on their theoretical probability.  I thought it would be an interactive way to gauge student understanding.  Instead it turned into a ten minute nightmare where I was asked no less than 52 times if their answers were “right”.  I took it well until I was asked for the 53rd time and then I lost it.  We stopped class right there and proceeded to have a ten minute discussion on who broke them.


If You Can Type the Problem into Wolfram Alpha and Get an Answer You Aren’t Doing Math

When did we brainwash kids into thinking that math was about getting an answer?  My students truly believe for some reason that math is about combining whatever numbers you can in whatever method that seems about right to get one “answer” and then call it a day.  They rarely think about what they are doing as long as at the end of the day their answer is “correct”.  Today they were given a task with no real correct answer and they lost it.  It did however lead us to have a very productive discussion about that fact that they are lucky, after all they live in the 21 century where they can solve any computation problem with technology with no issue.  The problem I told them lies in the fact that they have no idea how to interpret that answer.  We talked about the need for them to stop worrying about if I think their answer is right and to start worrying about whether or not they thought their answer was right.  I told them I was sorry someone (maybe me) broke their desire to think about math and instead taught them that math was a means to an end where there was always one right and one wrong answer and then I told them to try their assignment again.

Probability Revisited

Things went so much better the second time around with not one student asking me if their answer was “right” (perhaps out of fear of another Powers meltdown).  For the first time I heard some really rich discussions that were sometimes correct and sometimes were not but the important thing was the kids were talking about the math.  There was a great discussion about the circle that was shaded in vs. the circle that was not shaded in.  The obvious answer was that the shaded in circle represented one and the unshaded represented zero but another group of students thought maybe the non-shaded circle was actually shaded in with white and would therefore represent one as well.  Fabulous.  Another group focused on the statement “it will rain tomorrow”.  One student had seen the weather and knew there was a 90% chance of rain the other had not seen the weather and though the probability was 50% since it would either rain or not.  They compromised and picked the middle but that’s not the part I cared about, I cared that they had a reasonable discussion about their thoughts.

Why Constructing a Viable Argument and Making Sense of the Reasoning of Others is Crucial

This may seriously be the most vital mathematical practice.  If students can’t share their ideas and understand the ideas of others is there any real point in them “doing the math”.  After our lesson redo I paired each group with another group to share their number line.  Their goal was to look for similarities and differences and explain their rationale about why they placed controversial cards where they did.  I heard some of most logical and articulate arguments we have had all year.  I think I heard, “I like what you did there, but…” repeatedly along with “I hear what you are saying”.  We brought it back together as a whole class to follow it up and each group shared the most interesting conversation that they had.


In the end our meltdown and redo took more time than anticipated by me but it was time well worth it.  If we are to truly make progress in getting our students to understand the concepts presented in the Common Core to the depth intended we must help them learn to stop looking for a right answer and start looking for a right reason.  I still don’t know who broke my kids but I know it is up to me to fix them one argument at a time.


162 thoughts on “Who or What Broke My Kids?

  1. Getting a discussion going can be hard with young students. Global warming,the world banking crisis, corporate and political responsibility,injustice and social inequity. welive in a soft environment where all this happens to other people.

    • You are correct sometimes it is hard to get them to apply what we are learning directly to them. I try to find things that they can relate to but it isn’t always easy! I do think it is important that they learn to share their ideas and communicate with others.

  2. I love the line, where you said they stopped looking for the right answers and started looking for the right reason. We need more teachers like you who are not just teaching a class but engaging students and taking them beyond the assignment. To the depths of applying what they learn to life not just for a grade….i just really wanted to thankyou. Keep being a lovely teacher

  3. I really liked your post and it made me think of Phil Daro and his butterfly/fraction example. It also made me think about the experience my sons and I had comparing the traditional multiplication method with the “lattice” method…how they work…why they work…how they are similar …afterwards they really understood what was going on AND they understood the distributive property.

    • Yes! I love so much of Daro does. When students understand why things work then they remember how to do them rather than just knowing something at its most basic form for the short term only. Thanks for your comments!

  4. I think maybe you are the first influence to open up this sort of discussion in the context of math for your students. It has been a long time since I was in middle school; but it wasn’t until well into university that I realized there was t necessarily a correct answer when it came to mathematics. Well done

  5. I never thought about this occurring in math class. I teach philosophy in community college and have always assumed that my students (and their teachers) were having it easy in math class BECAUSE there were in fact answers. Thanks for opening my eyes. I too think about what we did to them, when we lost them. Sometimes I even ask them, and I’m sure a few of them feel that I am berating them. But I really want to know. At the end of the day, however, I usually decide to deal with the phenomenon. They’re here, they’re what they are…what do I do now? This requires a lot of improvisation. Sounds like you do that well. Keep it up!

  6. I taught for thirty years and the thing that breaks children is failure. But if remove failure from the board there is no urge to try. It becomes to easy and competition is lost. A tough call. To easy or to hard.

  7. I am so glad to come through your blog, especially this post. I face the same problem with students and that too at university level in economics. They all concentrate on getting the “right” answers, rather than understand the reasoning behind it. As a teaching assistant, I value their mistakes because that’s where learning actually takes place and encourage them to understand the reason behind their answer. Although the approach has made success with some students, but the challenge remains.

    I just wish students stop fearing mistakes.

    • Thanks so much. It is interesting for me to hear the University experience as well. Keep up the good work as a teaching assistant, your are making a bigger impact than you know!

    • Great post. I have this conversation all the time with my husband (high school math teacher). The teachers experimenting with Genius Hour and 20 Time are trying to find ways to make failure an option and something to learn from. I’m very interested in following the movement. Hopefully some studies will be done to see how participating in Genius Hour class time effects students’ overall performance.

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  9. Many people, myself included, are intimidated by math. Problem Solving in my elementary years just gave me shivers. My dad tried to make to calm me down by saying that the problems are just little stories that needed an ending. It is one thing to be good in math, and another to be good at teaching math. I am glad that there are more good teachers like yourself . Sometimes there is more value to the process more than the final answer.

  10. I didn’t think the children were “broken” in not knowing already a new concept being given them. However, I am concerned about “broken” people. Somewhere I learned that children learn concrete things before abstract, but perhaps that was a result of our teaching methods rather than native capacity. I just today posted Relationships Change People. Here’s to Your Health! evelynmmaxwell.com

  11. You will never get students to stop looking for a right answer when 1) their future depends on grades, 2) they have no joy in learning and discovery — school is a goal driving enterprise rather than an experience, 3) the important distinction isn’t made between questions which HAVE right answers and those which do NOT, 4) the message is not given that the quest is more important and interesting than the prize. I’ve taught college and university for more than 30 year and in the past 10 years the ability of my students to think critically has plummeted. They are more grade driven and more likely to cheat. They view their classmates as competitors. You can read a lot of my analyses of this problem on my blog — just go their and search “teaching.” http://marthakennedy.wordpress.com/ I would be very happy to hear your thoughts — the kids YOU’RE teaching now end up in MY classroom in 6 or 7 years. They are terrified and unskilled and often desperate. Common Core? No. The drive behind it is misplaced. It seems (IMO) to have ignored the fact that kids LIKE learning new things. Great and saddening post. Thanks!

    • Thanks so much for your comment. I am excited to explore your blog because it is so interesting for me to hear about the University perspective as well. I promise I am trying to get some critical thinkers to you guys eventually 🙂

  12. Very well written and it is sad that this is how our kids are today. I see it in my children. Sounds like you had a wonderful discussion!

  13. Very interesting. We saw an extreme case of math fear the other night as we attempted to explain the Italian game of Scopa to another couple. We had to stop and declare freedom from fear with the wife who had gone into a serious case of “arithmophobia”. As we refused to “partner” with whatever bad history she had in the math world, her recovery came, and she was able to learn the game. The ladies beat the guys by a two to one ratio, and the next day we received a text that she had beaten her husband at Scopa at home.
    I write a blog that sometimes leads me into the no-man’s-land of science and God, and I see people glaze over when I try to explain a simple concept such as randomness and ignorance. I think I’m really dumbing down the concept, but the star-crossed expression in their eyes says differently.
    One last thing. I would say that coming unglued is probably not conducive to introducing a new approach. Dr Deming, the American professor who started the quality movement in Japan, had his famous 14 points, one of which was “eliminate fear”.
    Years ago I was computerizing a manufacturing business, and I had my own meltdown when people failed to behave logically. My little tirade became known among the staff as the infamous idiots speech. Definitely not conducive to progress, but can be forgiven of the young… or anyone tasked with the impossible.

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  15. Thank you thank you for writing this! I wish I knew who broke them too. I tried to explain to my friends ages ago that it’s not getting the right answer that counts, but understanding the problem. They just waved me out of the way at the time. I’ve never forgotten that. When I was in school we got points for showing our work and there was no multiple choice. So you had to understand to work the problems whether you got the right answer or not. But you could see where you went wrong, if the answer was incorrect.

  16. It is a real shame that information like this will never make it to main stream to inform other parents about how to think outside the box. Look at how home schooling is on the up rise in this country, like wild fire, and how the gov’t hates it.

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  18. I am incapable of doing math. I admit it. I didn’t even understand your lesson description because my head shut off as I read it. Now I’ve been out of school for a LONG time, but it was always about getting the right answers no matter what the subject. Mine were never right on the math tests. No one was ever going to make math fun or interesting. It was my goal to figure out how to get the right answer with the least amount of thinking. I guess I’m one of the broken ones!

  19. Being in a math class can be very disheartening. I’m a summer school math tutor and to be in that atmosphere hurts to the core. Math shouldn’t only be subjected to the “is it right syndrome”. What ever happened to students comprehension of math and how it applies to the facets of our lives?

  20. By this point these kids have spent 8 years doing worksheets, taking tests, answering questions that then get checked with an answer key. Not only do most questions have one answer, almost all the time someone besides the child is picking the question. An adult decides what knowledge is important and then children sit there acting like a bucket- blaming teachers if their bucket doesn’t get full (that is, if they haven’t learned a subject or fact).
    What broke the kids is the system. It is inherently flawed. School shouldn’t be a place where kids rotate facts from “Things that are going to be on the test” to “Things I’ve forgotten”. It should be the place where they are safely allowed to discover knowledge for themselves. A place to manipulate objects, situations, knowledge. A place to make mistakes and learn from them without fear of embarrassment or referrals or detention. What you need is a system that exposes children to a variety of experiences, then supports them as they pursue their interests. Remember your Piaget and Vygotsky and tell me how a typical public school education makes sense in light of just about every derned thing you were taught. Play is important. Curiosity is innate. We don’t need to sit kids in a desk and cram them full of common core. We need to set them free in a really rich, vibrant, puzzling environment and go all MIss Frizzle on them. Instead, we’ve created several generations of people who don’t try things, who are afraid of making mistakes and are downright scared of getting messy.

    I love the questions you’re asking. I hope you manage to finagle your way through the current educational yuck, and am of the opinion that your students are lucky to have a teacher like you.

    Also? This, THIS!!! is why I homeschool my kids.

  21. As an educator too, I believe that the education system in many countries is more interested in product, grades, and testing rather than process, and so it is ‘the system’ that broke the kids.

  22. I never commented on a teacher’s page before, but I feel this way most days. I think it is society that wants to give prizes, candy and trophies to everyone. Math is right or wrong. Good thing you don’t teach English like I do. Thanks for posting

  23. With all due respect to Pink, your kids are not broken…just bent and they can learn to love to learn again…it just requires more teachers like you!

  24. Pingback: Why I Chose NOT to Be a Teacher | The Chronicles of ChrisLandia

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