Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The ability to reason requires (lots of) practice.

I have not yet mistaken my wife for a hat.  But I have had this applied topology problem that probably is transparent in its solution, yet it has continued to vex me from time to time.  My key ring now has only two keys on it, the key to the car and the key to the house.  The car key is quite large since the remote control is built into it.  But the house key is modestly sized and once in a while my juggling of the keys while still in my pocket gets the house key lodged into the ring, where how to get it unlodged is not apparent to me.  When the key is stuck in this position it is not possible to use it for its intended purpose, as the key ring itself blocks insertion of the key fully into the key hole.

Yesterday I returned home from a lecture on campus around 5:30 PM only to experience the discomfort, nay the panic, of the topology problem returning while in my left hand I had an umbrella, a handbag with my laptop, and another bag with the exams from my class that hadn't been picked up.  Rather than be sensible and put that stuff down, to focus full attention on the topology problem, I take a stab at its solution with just my right hand.  I fail miserably, increasing my frustration in the process.  Fortunately for me, my wife and son returned from work soon after that.  So I presented the problem to my genius son.  He was as incompetent at it as I.   He then handed the key ring to my wife, who returns the house key to its proper position in a jiffy, so we can all make our way into the house.  The least theoretically inclined and mathematical of us has the most practical sense, by far. 

There were mitigating circumstances that might rationalize my inability to work my way out of the predicament.  I hadn't slept well the night before.  The next day (now yesterday) I was going to give back exams to the class on which the overall performance was worse than mediocre.  I kept playing through my mind how that class session should be conducted.  I thought I came up with the right play for that but it was still a case of delivering bad news and I've come to dread doing that sort of thing.  The class session itself hadn't gone particularly well, or so it seemed to me.  So I was still ruing that later in the day, when the applied topology problem hoist itself upon me, where I was totally unprepared to deal with it.  

Elsewhere I've written that when reaching about my age professors become better teachers because the slowing down of the thinking and the inevitable many faux pas that accompanies the aging enables the teacher to empathize more for the student.  I still think this is true.  Nevertheless, I'm horribly disappointed with where my students seem to be as learners.  The ultimate responsibility for that may be with the system rather than with them as individuals, the realization of which is about as far a my empathy will take me.  But I have to wonder why more of the students don't buck the system and figure out to learn for themselves in spite of the apparent pressures to conform.  Why does memorizing the stuff that is spoon fed to them in their classes and regurgitating that on the exams become, in essence, addictive behavior.  Don't they get that this is not really learning.  It's not even a good imitation, though admittedly in those classes where the instructors indulge this addiction it provides something of a safety play for how the students will do on the exams.

My students were already aware of my displeasure with their memorizing.  They weren't surprised when I brought that up yet again in discussing their performance on the exam.  I did surprise them in a different way.  I gave the entire class a bonus for the performance, mediocre as it was.  My thinking was first that for the kids who scored at the median or lower, I'd have lost them for the rest of the semester if I hadn't provided the bonus.  They'd be too bummed out.  My goal was to take grades off the table as much as I possibly could, while simultaneously letting them know that I do still care about their performance.  The other thing I did was to suggest the possibility of an extra credit project, briefly described here

At the moment I have three takers for the extra credit project (24 students sat for the exam).  One was the high scorer on the midterm.  The other two were under achievers.  Each has now been allocated a paper to review.  I'm interested to see how much progress they can make on these.  My hope is that translating these pieces by well known economists according into language that students can understand according to guiding questions that I provide will require the students to stretch themselves mentally and require them to to give their own meaning to what they are reading.

We'll see.  I usually have high hopes when I try something different.  At the least, the students will not have a standard routine to follow to do these projects. That in itself might produce some unanticipated benefits.  I am meeting one of these students tomorrow afternoon.  I hope to have a better sense of what he might get out of this project from that conversation.  But I also hope, on the flip side, that I can convince him to put in the sweat equity needed to make the project worthwhile and for him to get a sense that his understanding will grow as he does that.   

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