Letter from the Editor: Are You Teaching Students to Use Their “Tools”?

Are You Teaching Students to Use Their “Tools”?

Mom and my sister--both teachers--find it funny that I ended up working for a website called Teach.com. “You just couldn’t escape,” my mom likes to laugh. A love of sharing information is in our blood. But I try to do more listening than talking around my mom. When she talks, I always learn something.

While waiting for the fireworks to start on Independence Day this year, my mom and I were discussing, of all things, word problems. My mom complained that her students hated them, which never made much sense to her.

“Saying that you like fractions or that you like algebra, but you don’t like word problems... that's basically saying you like having a box full of tools, but you don't like fixing anything with them.”

My mom revealed, in true destined-to-be-a-teacher form, that she used algebra to figure out her roommates’ share of the phone bill back in college (with long distance calls impressively taken into account). This really amazed me because the mere act of applying classroom skills to real life is something that’s taken me years to figure out.

“If you were going to get your car fixed, would you be impressed with a mechanic that shows you his tools but doesn't know how to fix anything? ‘Look, I have a ratchet! I have a screwdriver!’"

I remember, for example, being presented with a sheet of music by my drum teacher back in high school. He waited for me to play while I just blinked, overwhelmed by notes with other little note markings all over the page (my vocabulary for these fails me even now).

“I don’t know what these things are,” I stammered.

“Yes you do,” my teacher told me. “We learned ratamacues at your lesson last week.”

That was technically true. My weekly lessons always consisted of practicing rudiments--sticking patterns like paradiddles or ratamacues--that we’d go over over and over again, honing their precision and execution through repetition. But it hadn't occurred to me that I’d some day find them in a piece of music at band practice--or that they ever show up in music at all. In my mind, ratamacues lived neatly laid out, one after another, uniform and separate, in my practice book.

Ratamacues as half notes? As quarter notes? In a measure alongside rolls and rim shots? That wasn’t what we had learned.

I choked.

I told this story to my mom, still waiting for the sun to go down, and she immediately understood. “It’s something so many teachers completely forget to tell their students: to apply their knowledge.” She told me she asks her classes, “If you were going to get your car fixed, would you be impressed with a mechanic that just showed you his tools? ‘Look, I have a ratchet! I have a screwdriver!’ That’s how silly it sounds when you say, ‘I can play a ratamacue! But not a song.’ Or, ‘I like algebra! But I just want to solve for “x,” not for how much each banana costs at the grocery store.’ It doesn’t make sense. And that’s where we’re failing students.”

I thought about my academic career with a twinge of regret. Why didn’t I make a math problem out of square footage vs. cost-per-room for that shared apartment instead of guessing (and overpaying)? Why didn’t I connect learning French to travelling some day, instead of just trying to pass the weekly quizzes?

The fireworks finally started but my own ideas about independence had just kicked into action. We often think of teachers as supporting figures in students' lives, but self-sufficiency is an important lesson too.

Are we teaching it?

--Cathy Vandewater