Tall, Dark, and Mysterious

9/28/2004

This is negligence.

File under: Righteous Indignation, Sound And Fury, Those Who Can't. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 3:01 pm.

We have the technology, I’m sure, to design an inexpensive, hand-held device that sounds out phonemes for us. Type in - or scan, or whatever - a word, and it’ll tell you that the letter b makes the buh sound, and that a t and an h together make that sound that you get by biting gently on your tongue and breathing out. “This thing does your reading for you!” users would rave. “As long as you know the meaning of sounds of words, you don’t need to read or anything!” And elementary schools would begin hiring illiterate teachers who were well-versed in the operation of the reader. “I could never read,” they’d say with nonchalance, “but you never need to read in real life - you can get your reader to do that for you. And my six-year-olds, they understand what words sound like, and with the reader, that’s enough.”

You know where I’m going with this, don’t you?

One of my finite math students came to my office the other day, sat down, and announced that she didn’t get matrices. So I walked her through one of the examples, assuring her that row reduction was the exact same thing as solving a system of equations by elimination, but with different notation. “So here, for example,” I said, “You multiply the second row by three. So the coefficient of the y term is now three times eight.”

“Right,” she said slowly.

“Which is…?” I prompted.

She stared blankly at me. “I left my calculator in my car.”

There are aspects of this job that could - should - earn me Academy Awards. For instance, at the news that computing three times eight was not only something that couldn’t be done instantaneously, but was in fact something that could not even be done with a minute to think about it - I did not weep, or choke. I did not tear my hair, rent my clothes, or curse the heavens. I merely stared ahead for a second.

Or perhaps more than a second, because my student then giggled - ostensibly to lighten the mood - “Seriously, it’s really bad, I use my calculator to do five times one.”

The staring ahead on my part must have continued, because my student went on: “Like, my niece is six years old, and comes home from school showing us what she can do on her calculator. It’s terrible!” she declared righteously.

It really is.

My student was resigned to never learning her times tables; she’s too old for that, she informed me unapologetically, and besides, she’s in university now.

The rest of the day’s events included - but were not limited to - an adult student taking issue with the line “5/2+5/2=5″ on the blackboard - “isn’t that 5+5 over 2+2?”

Again with the poker face on my part, followed by, “What’s a half plus a half?”

She narrowed her eyes at me, the simple question a distraction from the real issue, the serious and difficult matter of adding 5/2 to itself . “A whole,” she replied.

“So five halves plus five halves?”

A pause. “Oh. Five wholes.”

(This, by the way, is the job at which I’m merely temping, as I lack a Ph.D. Exactly how that additional qualification would enable me to educate students who can’t add fractions or multiply single digit integers is beyond me.)

These are two of my students. There are others, many others, students who cling desperately to their calculators, those little black boxes.

These students were promoted through grade three, and then grade four, and then grade five, and then grade six, and all the way up to grade twelve lacking the ability to assimilate the simplest of numerical data on their own. All manner of quantitative data must be mediated through a machine before they can deal with it in even the most basic of terms. If apples are two for a dollar, and they want to buy seven of them, they have no concept of how much they’ll end up paying. If they need to double a recipe that calls for a third of a cup of sugar and a half a cup of flour, they’ll end up wasting their time with quarter-cups and sixth-cups (do those exist?) only to wonder why their cake is so small, given that they used two sixths of a cup of sugar and two quarters of a cup of flour - twice what the recipe called for.

Promoting those students through eight, ten years of math classes is absolute negligence, and I point my finger at every teacher, parent, and school administrator who didn’t notice or didn’t care that the children they were charged with educating could not deal with numbers in any sense whatsoever. Being unable to multiply eight by three without a calculator is like being unable to understand a Japanese movie without subtitles. But I never passed a Japanese class.

And, alas, there are those other four fingers pointing back at myself, as protocol here is to pass virtually everyone who puts in an effort. But again, I’m temping, and the insufferable cynic in me is tempted to assign everyone a grade of 40%, and explain - yes, that’s 10% for quizzes, 60% for tests and 30% for the final, and your grades were 70%, 65%, and 55% respectively, so that’s 40%. I submit that students who don’t argue don’t deserve to pass.