A sales pitch to the disinterested

My job is to sell a product that the client doesn’t want but has to have – so Dan Meyer has aptly described the job of a maths teacher.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some students who do love maths. They see the beauty of it and are curious about the language that underlies mathematics. They know that maths provides them with a break from the everyday and opens up a new world in which they can creatively explore.

For others, however, maths is a seemingly unattainable subject. The language of maths (and, quite often, the language of English) provides a brick wall that halts their ability to reason with any problems or puzzles they face. “I’m dumb at maths” becomes an easy catch cry and excuse for giving up. Many of these students have spent years not understanding this supposedly important subject and now, in high school, are one, two or sometimes five years behind.

These students’ behaviours unsurprisingly manifests in ways that show a disinterest in and lack of responsibility towards their learning.

At the passive end of the spectrum are students who ask for textbook exercises. Instead of being given open-ended or discursive problems to solve, they would rather follow procedural tasks that have a single answer to be ticked off by flipping to the end of the book. These students are simply satisfied with knowing they’re right and then moving on. The more interesting question of understanding ‘why’  is not of concern.

Somewhere behind these students are those who make an active choice to hand over responsibility for all aspects of their learning to their teacher. I mean all. These students, despite having had around a decade of education thus far, have over this period lost the ability to bring a book or pen to class. Education is of such little significance that these basic items are not perceived as an essential part of their day. Once the work gets started in class, these students will then often lack impetus or ability to get started, often needing help step-by-step to understand exactly what they need to think about and write down.

Finally, at the aggressive end of the spectrum, are those students who care so little about the learning of their peers and of themselves that they actively disrupt classes. These students take attention away from constructive discussions and productive stages of a lesson, shifting it onto their own behaviour. They display an unwillingness to concede that a classroom is made up of more than one individual and that those other individuals are there in the room trying to become smarter, not learn about their best friend’s Facebook status.

While these four personalities will exist in most classes, the difficulty multiplies when the balance of students shifts towards the disengaged end of the spectrum. In these classrooms, the teaching and learning becomes more about improving behavioural and attitudinal skills rather than specific mathematical concepts. To turn this around, takes not only much work from a teacher, but also from the school, support services and parents.