Call to action / Math Liberation / Math Teaching / Pedagogy

More Doing, Less Learning

A little over a week ago, I was fortunate to participate in Ladies Rock Camp Boston, which is a shortened version of Girls Rock Camp Boston, a summer camp for girls 8 to 17. Ladies Rock Camp lasted three days, and in those three days participants formed bands, learned a new instrument, wrote a song, got good at that song, and performed the song with our bands at a sold-out showcase at TT the Bears, a local club. It was an amazing experience in many ways, and I have been thinking about how amazing it was as a learning experience in particular. Oddly, it was amazing as a learning experience precisely because it wasn’t about learning.

We had instrument instruction each morning; my instrument was drums, and I learned the basics of a rock beat, how to hold my sticks, and other useful tidbits. But I found practicing with my newly formed band to be much more useful than than instrument practice. During band practice my band and I were writing a song and learning to play it simultaneously. We were not learning our instruments, learning to write music, or learning to be a band. We were just playing — actually being a band, rather than learning about it.

There were, however, knowledgeable folks everywhere. There were people who already knew how to play the instruments that we were struggling with, and they were ready to step in with help whenever we had questions. There were people who had written songs who helped us when we felt stuck or frustrated. There were people who had been or were currently in bands around to help solve problems, to cheer us on, and to guide us.

In the morning of the second day, during instrument practice, I felt like a total failure. I thought I’d never really “get” drumming, that I’d let my band down, and that surely I was the only idiot there that couldn’t coordinate my hands and my feet. Everything seemed to come easily to everyone else. But then I got back to practicing with my band again. Once I was doing instead of learning, everything came much more easily, and I was able to do what seemed impossible while I was learning.

Ladies Rock Camp did plenty of other things to help us transform ourselves into rock stars. We were instructed never to say “I’m sorry” after making a mistake but instead to say “I rock.” I never actually succeeded in doing that, but it reminded me to move through the world boldly, and to claim my own space. We practiced getting into our powerful rock personas, we screamed, we shared, and we did punk rock aerobics. We also had enough time pressure that we were willing to keep moving forward, even though we sometimes felt that we weren’t good enough. When you have to go from zero to performance-ready in 60 hours, you simply can’t wait until you are “ready,” and that was one of the keys that allowed us to move forward — we knew we didn’t have time to waste “learning,” we just had to make do and keep moving.

Typically, when we decide to learn something, we defer doing. First, you learn to play the drums, then you join a band and rock out. First, you take a research methodology course, then you design and implement a research plan. First you learn programming, then you write an app. But don’t the best experiences involve both learning and doing or creating? You learn to play the drums by being in a rock band. You learn research methodology by doing research. You learn programming by writing an app. You don’t wait until someone else certifies that you are ready — you just do it.

Further, I would argue that the best experiences also involve a community where there are plenty of people around to answer questions, to help us to figure out how to get back to that rock rhythm after a transition, to give us feedback about our research plan, to suggest a way we might overcome a programming problem. The best communities contain plenty of people who are just a bit more advanced than us, so that we can ask questions and get advice without being completely intimidated. We need to be able to ask the really “stupid” questions — the ones that reveal us to be beginners struggling just to keep the beat.

But as I struggle to integrate these lessons that I’ve learned with my own practice as an educator, I come across one hurdle that looms over all others — compulsory education. Ladies Rock Camp worked well for a population of women excited to rock. Yay! If 40 women showed up who wanted nothing to do with rock-and-roll and instead wanted to better understand the history of musical theory, the model probably would need some tweaking. Still, if we gathered a group of people together that shared a common interest, we could find a way to engage those people through creating something, and have them learn the skills they needed along the way.

But what would happen if we gathered together a group of people that wasn’t interested in anything? Or, thinking about it another way, what if we regularly gathered groups of people together around a topic that might be of little interest, but we compelled the group to gather and learn about the topic anyway. Oh right, we already do that and it’s called school. In school, we gradually erode people’s natural interest in the world and replace it with an interest in grades and other arbitrary rewards. We spend 12 to 16 years training people to engage in meaningless learning exercises for arbitrary rewards, and then we wonder why students don’t emerge from the experience more capable.

In my professional life, I only a few students each year who actually want to do math. I teach a number of students who enjoy and are reasonably skilled at getting right answers to questions. And those students can learn by doing, but the doing is “doing math assigned problems” and their enjoyment hinges on having and “expert” (me) judge their performances favorably. The rest of my students don’t want what I have to offer, which makes it challenging to engage them through doing and creating. I try to avoid forcing students to do meaningless work, and instead provide them with opportunities to create and do, but it is challenging, and I need to find better ways to support them so that they can see themselves as creators even in a subject as seemingly dehumanizing as mathematics. I’m very glad to have another model of this kind of education, and hopefully that I can find ways to bring the spirit of Ladies Rock Camp and Girls Rock Camp to my own teaching and learning.

PS Because I can tell you are all dying to see the results, you can see the video of me and my band playing at the showcase. I’m hoping to volunteer with the girls’ camp this summer to steep myself a little more in how the whole thing works!

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