Idealism vs Practicality

I am watching the Democratic debate on PBS between Hilary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. And, like so many Democrats paying attention at this point, I am making a choice.

Practicality? Or Idealism?

I face this same choice in my life as a teacher.

I do not work at a school where the “traditional way” of teaching is failing my students, or at least not failing most of them. It is an all-girls private school in a wealthy neighborhood in a progressively more wealthy city. My school has high rates of students taking AP Calculus, and extremely high rates of passing the exam. Our standardized test scores are good and college acceptance rates and lists are insanely good. And most of our students have an extremely traditional path through the math department. And it has really been fine for them.

So for me, practicality is easy: teach from a traditional textbook, written by somebody Larsonish. Do lots of worked examples. Spice it up with a fun activity or project here and there for kicks, sure, but keep it limited.

I’ve done that before. I was well-liked. It’s both easy and fun for me, results in little to no complaining, results in pretty good measurable mathematical success for most students, and is what most of my colleagues do. It’s very practical. Hilary approves

Hillary Approves

But…I am unsatisfied with that. Sorry Hil. I voted for you in 2008, and I’ll vote for you in November when you inevitably win this primary season, but for now, I’m feeling idealistic.

I think we can better serve a large majority of our students. The math love at my school is not nearly as high as I want it to be. I know lots of students who like math class at our school, but if you ask them why it is often for less than ideal reasons. “I know what to expect.” ” I like that there’s always a right answer.” “I do well when I know how to answer a question.” In some cases, we are creating math zombies, and they like it. Sure, there are some girls in the honors tracks who really do love math, the same way I loved math. These girls can see the beauty without help or prompting, and the traditional curriculum technique allows them to focus on their own explorations and move quickly and efficiently. But so many others are surviving from test to test, practicing techniques with limited knowledge or interest in what they are practicing.

These students don’t really love math because they barely know what math is.

And of course, there are plenty of students who absolutely hate everything about our math classes; who can’t remember the procedures, or follow the examples, or identify the path to the “right answer.”

I don’t think we can make every student love math. But I believe that we (both me,  my school, and teachers in general) can do a better job showing what math really is. And showing many of them that they can do THAT math. Even the ones that aren’t in honors! (an idea which might be shocking to some of my colleagues). I believe we can do a better job making the students care, just a little bit, about why things are true, rather than just what to do. That we can get them to generalize, discuss, and explore. Maybe, even, make a few of them love math who currently don’t.

I’m an idealist.


Of course, like Bernie, I have a problem; just because I believe it doesn’t mean I have a solid plan to make it happen.

Idealism won in 2008, and many of the idealists were disappointed when it didn’t immediately lead to rainbows and magic. If idealism wins this year, I’m sure the same disappointment will take place.

I hope I have the strength to keep my idealism through all of my own disappointments.

One thought on “Idealism vs Practicality

  1. David, great meeting you today. Thanks for the tough questions at lunch. I’ve enjoyed reading some of your thoughts here, particularly this post about Hilary v Bernie. Couldn’t agree more.

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