I sat this morning reading a little of The Book of Life, by Krishnamurti – something which I like to browse through and ponder from time to time. This morning’s meditation somehow felt very apt as I attempt to get almost 800 students to enjoy mathematics, and learn its techniques as well as its beauty. The meditation was the following:
How is the state of attention to be brought about? It cannot be cultivated through persuasion, comparison, reward or punishment, all of which are forms of coercion. The elimination of fear is the beginning of attention. Fear must exist as long as there is an urge to be or to become, which is the pursuit of success, with all its frustrations and tortuous contradictions. You can’t teach concentration, but attention cannot be taught just as you cannot possibly teach freedom from fear; but we can begin to discover the causes that produce fear, and in understanding these causes there is the elimination of fear. So attention arises spontaneously when around the student there is an atmosphere of well-being, when he has the feeling of being secure, of being at ease, and is aware of the disinterested action that comes with love. Love does not compare, and so the envy and torture of `becoming’ cease.
Fear is certainly a major part of the barrier to enjoying and understanding mathematics. How do you think a mathematics course can be taught such that fear is minimised? What can be done in the classroom, and the manner of giving homeworks which still allows for a deep and thorough investigation of many topics, while not instilling fear in the learner? I would love to know your thoughts.
The whole exam culture breeds fear, by design. You cannot teach a subject and expect absorption and enjoyment while the threat of failure with -veconsequences exists. Unless the student knows they are on top of the pile, and is extremely confident, they will experience fear of failure. The current system of education fights against learning and engenders mercenary box-ticking. The answer is to put exams in their proper place or ask the students how they would like to be tested.
I agree with you completely. It does seem necessary that people know the basic level of knowledge that a graduate will have, and without some sort of testing, that seems hard to gauge. If you were to redesign the system, how would those exams be put in their proper place? I agree that exams are a huge cause of the fear, but I’m not sure how else to model the system when there are 800 people on a course.
A middle ground can be found. I oft feel that the evolution that happened in management science in commerce needs to happen in education. There, motivation is understood to be the complex thing that it is so modern organisations are continually learning and adopting new behaviours and achieving greater success. They realize engagement is proportional to the “we are in it together” factor. We can borrow a page from their book. The point of a subject like mathematics is above all to guide the student to her or his mind, to truly awaken the learner to the power of pure thought. This can be very satisfying. Students need space to do so. To keep people motivated, they must experience positive feedback where it is due. There must be something in it for everyone who positively participates. Of course, exams are practical and necessary given the way society is organised. One strategy is to ensure that tests and exams conform to some fairness criteria, e.g at least 60% of the exam must be based on material directly covered in the notes and in lectures, 20% to more challenging concepts and techniques and 20% requiring students to extend themselves to their limit. If this is understood by all from the beginning, a lot of the anxieties are alleviated and the experience can be more rewarding and beneficial.