My first (and second) memory of learning math

Some time ago Wendy Menard got me thinking about my first memory of learning mathematics. What was it?

Its two things, actually. Both happened in fifth-grade. My teacher was a redheaded man with a great beard, Mr. O’Discoll (a.k.a Mr. O). Great guy, great energy. He made learning fun. He even played me and a couple of my friends in basketball at the end of the school year in the school gymnasium. We lost 100-98. I’ll never live it down.

Anyway, I digress. Back to learning math. The first vivid memory I have of learning math is the multiplication worksheets that Mr. O would give us. He would time us. I don’t  recall it ever being a race or competition to finish, but I do remember being pressured by time constraints.

The second memory comes from an exam that I took in his class. I don’t remember the math that was on it, but before the exam, I remember him telling us to always check our work after answering the problems. Well on this particular exam, I remember following his advice for about 3/4 of the exam, finding and fixing several mistakes, but then stopping — thinking that I had already done a great job. I was presumptuous. When Mr. O handed the exam back, I had a perfect paper — up until where I stopped checking my work. I had so many errors in the unchecked portion of my exam. I distinctly remember a comment he wrote directly on the exam: “why did you stop checking your work, Brian?”

Sometimes I think about how these two distant moments from my childhood have impacted how I teach mathematics.

Firstly, I teach mathematics the way I was taught math. I think this is the norm for so many teachers regardless of the subject — and it’s not a bad thing. It’s reality. In my case, drill-in-kill was what I experienced early and often, like in the case of Mr. O’s multiplication worksheets. This experience brainwashed me equate math with speed and correct answers…and this is very evident today in my teaching. I try hard to combat this, but I am not the most inquiry-based math teacher. I struggle to move beyond test-prep style learning. Its a product of the culture in which I teach, yes, but its also a direct result of the math education I received. This bothers me.

Secondly, through the years I have always been prone to mistakes when it comes to learning and teaching math. I consider myself a slow thinker, but I don’t want to be. Thanks to my fifth-grade class (and others no doubt), I want to get it on the first attempt. Sometimes I feel like I have to get it on the first attempt. Whether it is typos in handouts,  mistakes in grading, or my blunders in planning thoughtful mathematical experiences for my algebra 2 kids, I always find errors that could have easily been edited had I not been too lazy or overconfident to dig deeper. Heck, even my typo-laden tweets are evidence of this. Mr. O’s exam and his advice are always in the back of my head. I do my best to follow his advice, but I fail much more often than I succeed.




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