Read the first conversation here.
William How goes the teaching?
Matt Do you really want to know? You might not like the answer.
William You’re going to start this conversation with bombast?
Matt Then how about this one. Last week in statistics class, I made a claim and noticed a student’s quizzical look. I asked, “Why that face? Are you dubious or are you certain?” The student’s reply?
William You don’t always explain things well, you know.
Matt Ha! You must have already guessed that the student said, “I don’t know what that word means.”
William This student might have just been taken aback. You can be more than a little intimidating.
Matt Oh, please.
William It’s a rarely used word.
Matt You recall I’m teaching a math class designed for students who don’t want to take math, but that must to satisfy a requirement to graduate.
William I do.
Matt Last week, one of the senior professors who organizes this course—there are multiple sections taught; I only teach one—came into my office and asked if I had noticed whether my students were having more difficulty than might be expected. This professor, I should add, is a brilliant mathematician and a sweetheart.
William I can see where this is going. I’ll bet at good odds that you were pushing those kids too hard.
Matt Actually, I told him that I had come to the realization on my own just two days previously when one of the students complained, to wide acclaim, “You mean you want us to read the whole book?” I thought then to myself, “There is no way that most of these kids are going to pass this course.”
William So you admit it?
Matt Yes. Even though the book’s topics were elementary—were designed to be elementary—the students couldn’t, our couldn’t be bothered to, master them.
William And the senior professor’s advice?
Matt He said that I did not really have to use the entire book, and that I did not have to teach the entire syllabus. He implied that it was best to get these students through the system, and he did so in a manner which suggested he had the students’ best interests at heart. By that I mean, he wanted to see them graduate and not flunk out.
William The proper sentiment. These kids come to college to receive an education, and you should adapt your material to provide it. Not everybody can learn calculus! Just think: they are learning some new math in your class, aren’t they?
Matt They are learning so little as to be trivial. But the real danger is that they—and those that later work with them—will assume they “know math” because they received a passing grade in a “math” course.
William I still say that they’ll have learned some new math.
Matt Most will never remember it. Anyway, the next time in class, I asked the students, “I know you have to take a math course to graduate, and I know you have a choice between this course and [let me call it] High School Algebra Redux. Why did you pick this one?”
William A lot of people are turned off by algebra.
Matt Good Lord! What a stupid thing to say. They’re “turned off” so they shouldn’t be required to learn? Wait, don’t answer. Let me tell you what the kids said. They said—are you ready?—they said, down to a man, that they heard this class was easier.
William They’re just trying to get through school.
Matt To get their “degree”? Well, once I heard that, I don’t mind telling you that I was pretty deflated. I went back to my office and thought hard about the class and about what little I could teach them. I sent out an email—this was a Friday—that said (in essence) “Don’t miss class on Monday. We’ll talk about what is important and what is not for our upcoming exam next Friday.”
William So you do have a heart.
Matt I’m just visiting here. If I set a standard much higher than normal, I’d cause a disruption in the routine. Anyway, during that Monday class I laid out the very few concepts that I thought most important. I said, “These will be on the exam Friday.” And then came class on Wednesday (still before the exam) and do you know what?
William I couldn’t guess.
Matt Two of the students said, “I missed Monday. What’s going to be on the exam?” I asked why they missed. One said, and the other concurred, that “Oh c’mon. I can’t make every Monday class.”
William People have busy schedules…
Matt Yeah, sure they do.