Wednesday, August 27, 2014

New Kid

With school just about to start, I'm getting requests to visit schools. I like doing that, but I always ask what it is the teachers/librarian hope the students will get out of the visit. What would make for a great event? Recently the answer has had to do with nonfiction research and writing -- exactly the thread that we've been exploring this week. I understand that teachers are fond of structure: thesis statement, 3/5 supporting details, conclusion. I have a different model to suggest -- or at least a different way of framing the challenge to students.

If your family moved, I might say, how would you approach finding your way in the new neighborhood, the new school, the new social environment? I ask this because we historians often quote the novelist L.P. Hartley "the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there." Exploring the past is moving to a strange and different place, whose codes, laws, and behaviors we need to learn. Similarly, math is a language -- perhaps, indeed, we should move math into the language track at schools alongside English, Spanish, Mandarin, etc. So how can students go about exploring a foreign land, a new language?

That gets back to my thought experiment. Off hand, I can picture young people taking one of three strategies as they figure out their lives in a new place. The first option is to lay low and case the joint. That is, some kids will want to look around, see what the new classmates are wearing, what songs they like, what media they use, what sports heroes they follow, what phrases are popular. The second option is to find one good friend -- that kind of student might be looking around, but will seek one close, good friend as a starting place, a home base. A third option is the confident star -- a student who knows s/he is good at something, soccer, basketball, singing, organizing events, might want to jump in and establish their value. The idea is that as a star they will attract other kids to them. I am sure there are other strategies, but these seem plausible.

Now lets apply the new kids on the block plans to nonfiction research. One approach is to case the joint: read up, what have other people already said about this subject? What is known? What are the questions? What is the vocabulary that is used by people who know this subject well. A second option is to find the one friend, that is, the student's own, comfortable, angle of entry. Let us say the student is interested in women's history, or social history, or battles, or economics, or science -- that passion becomes the student's entry, the passageway into research. And then there is the star -- the student who feels confident, who is eager to blaze his/her own trail, to come up with new answers, to solve some ancient puzzle, to prove that s/he can see the issue afresh -- have at it!

Languages and math -- I have to think more about this, but perhaps all of you have ideas. What if we taught kids to "speak and think math" -- with tools like immersion, experiment, conversation. Another analogy for another week.


  1. I truly learned to speak Spanish ("real" Spanish) when I was living in South America and had to speak with real Spanish speakers. I made plenty of mistakes. People laughed at my mistakes, but I didn't stop trying because I desperately wanted to be able to speak. I needed to be able to speak to go about my everyday life. So where are the opportunities to speak "real" math or do real research? As Frank Smith pointed out many, many, many years ago, learning something new is about joining the club of people who already do what you want to learn...but they do it better than you do.

    Are there parallels here for nonfiction research? Mistakes? Practice? Persistence?
    Motivation? Availability of more skilled models or mentors?

    1. exactly, perfect parallel -- and if we adults were more relaxed, expecting mistakes, gaffes, dead ends on the way to mastery, speaking the language, students would be better off.