Monday, April 22, 2013

Teaching What you Cannot Do!

Many years ago when I was teaching fourth grade in England I used to teach gymnastics in the after-school gymnastics club twice a week. It was an after-school  program sponsored by BAGA, the British Gymnastics Association. I was pretty good at it too; the teaching that is and not the gymnastics. I could, in fact, barely do a handstand but I could teach 10/11 year-olds how to do front and back flips and even a twisting back flip from a standing start. I read extensively about each individual move, the muscle control, the vital suppport points and the required techniques. Several of my students even went on to win regional prizes and may well have gone on to greater accomplishments after I emigrated. The key to success was being able to describe to the students what was required and to give the students the confidence to know that when they were risking something for the first time I was there to support them.

Fast forward forty years to tonight's graduate math ed class in which I have to teach probablity and proportional reasoning. Both are fairly abstract concepts althought they can be made concrete through the use of inquiry-based activities such as tossing coins and drawing. There are, however, some tricky abstract concepts one of which eluded my understanding for several hours today. For some reason I could just not understand, perhaps remember is more accurate, the difference between additive and multiplicative comparisons. I read extensively and figured some problem examples but it just was not working for me and I could feel the panic and fear rising. I even read about how some people cannot think proportionally but I knew this did not apply to me. I finally saw the light, so to speak, when I completed a problem in which a runner starts 6 laps before the second runner starts. If they are both running at the same speed the first runner will always be six laps ahead (Additive comparison) at all times. If the two runners started at the same time and one had completed 9 laps while the other had completed only 3 laps this would be multiplicative comparison. Ahaaaa, sigh of relief!

Why should lack of understanding invoke such panic when the inability to do something such as a back flip is taken for granted as quite normal? Therein lies one of the cornerstones of my beliefs about teaching.  

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