Impatience With Irresolution, pt 1: Part Of The Problem

That’s Milch’s term, coined in the first excerpt from my last post, a term he uses to describe the outcome of too much television: a society too intellectually lazy for complicated answers, fatuous thinkers who look for simple answers from their elected officials who will eagerly supply them.

I realize I see my students for a slim fraction of the time they spend elsewhere, but I am so concerned lately with my contribution to their impatience with irresolution. I want to do everything I can to make them patient with irresolution.

But I ask a lot of binary questions:

“Is the answer positive or negative?”
“Is it a function or not?”
“Is that in the first or the third quadrant?”

This is frustrating, but worse was my first three years teaching when a student would answer:

“It’s a function.”
“The first quadrant.”

And I’d congratulate correct answers more or less instantly. My output of those years is a student body that could blindly guess at a correct answer while faking total confidence.

Nowadays, I don’t much care what they answer. I’m disinterested. I want to get past their answer. My response to their answer is an automated “Why?” That’s where the action is.

I have been asking questions lately like “If the students in our class are the domain of a relationship, is their hair color a function?” which you can successfully defend from either angle.

I like the debates. I like the fights. I’m happy that we’re slowly detoxing off our addiction to easy answers, taking longer to answer questions that are worth more of our time.

Related Post – Not Automatically Generated

I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.


  1. I like to use “Jack Jack Attack” (the bonus mini-movie on The Incredibles DVD) to make this point; setting down the questions, “Who is the protagonist? Who is the antagonist?” in the center of the ring, running the clip, stepping back, and watching the fur fly. (Answer: with some mental jockeying, you can successfully defend these labels for both characters involved. You just need to think about it.) I don’t care what they think; I want to know WHY they think it.

  2. Right right right. So the question that has been tearing through my head this entire school year is, what makes certain digital media artifacts better for the job than others? Where is the line separating too-vague (which would require the teacher to do a lot more than toss two questions into the center of the ring) and too-defined (which wouldn’t permit nuanced argumentation).

    Then it’s like, how do you make one of those digital media artifacts with a certain content standard in mind? Projectile motion in two dimensions, in my case. Establishing a character’s point-of-view, in yours.

    When I type it out like that, it seems like your task only extends as far as selecting the right DVD off the rack at Blockbuster. Hmph.

  3. To which, Dan, I have to ask–why the insistence on digital media? If people were able to think–really think–before the time of television (about which I’m not entirely convince), it would suggest to me that it’s the televisual stuff that’s getting in the way. We probably, then, ought to go back to paper-and-pencil classroom tools.

    Of course, that’s patently absurd. But I really also think it’s kind of shallow to say that before TV people were better at thinking. My guess is that, like now, the vast majority of people wanted easy answers (“Is it okay to keep other people as slaves?” “Yes!”) to make themselves feel less bad about themselves, just as now (“Can I buy this house which I clearly can’t afford?” “Yes!”). The only reason people in the olden days seemed smarter than people today is that their language was, by and large, much denser than ours. But I don’t think there was anything Montaigne could do that E.B. White couldn’t.

  4. This post makes me happy, Dan. The sweet sauce is in the “whys” and “hows.” And this issue is a big part of “why” we knocked heads a few years ago (how time flies) over standardized testing and its reigning supremacy.

    Still very much appreciating your open blogging and continued evolution of insightful thinking.

  5. Effective questioning is one of the most valuable skills a teacher can have. However, it’s so much more than just asking the right questions. It is what we do after we ask the question. Do we wait for an answer? Only one? Do we tell them if it is right or wrong? Do we only let the two or three kids who “get it” right away answer? Do we shut a kid down with a “no” and move on? Have we created an environment where the cherubs feel comfortable sharing their thinking so we can even have these conversations?

  6. Clearly, many students are conditioned by the media moguls to want information and answers now. Many students are impatient. Many students are lazy.

    How then do I, as a math teacher, recondition students to want to discover the answer to a problem when they spend at least twice as much time at home being conditioned to the stated of immediacy and laziness through the internet and television?

    Will providing math in a media that students are familiar with, such as videos and the internet, help recondition them into thinkers or will it just add to the problem?

    I believe that there are good thoughtful things on TV and the internet, but by what rubric to we grade such things as useful in out classroom? What problems do we propose? What questions do we ask to elicit thoughtful responses?

    Deep topic, Dan, thank you.

    Final thought, could this be a social problem where the solution for it resides outside the stewardship of the educational community?

  7. Michael, I think I our students are more conditioned by us–their teachers–to go for the immediate information and answers than they are by whatever they do at home. End-of-unit assessments, more often than not, are about that: Solve these problems. Explain what the green light symbolizes. Explain why the United States entered World War I. Make a model of a cell. Put George on trial for Murder One. Etc. Etc.

    I have no idea what a good, deep assessment–a really deep one, not one that just makes kids do more shiny stuff–would look like, but I think that’s where this discussion is gonna go.

  8. Jeff, I think (in your first comment) you misread both Milch and me, letting a simple question (“do I use pre-TV or post-TV tools?”) suffice for the complicated one (“how do I discern the best of both?”).

    Milch body slams the sort of TV that’s rigidly episodic, stories that have an obvious protagonist, an obvious villain, an obvious complication, and an obvious resolution, all inside of a 21-minute block lengthened by nine minutes of advertising for cereal. When my kids watch TV that asks them to side with angels against demons, it makes it easier for them to accept the untruth that, in life, everyone is wholly good or wholly bad, that anyone with brown skin wearing a turban is a terrorist, etc, etc.

    Contrast The Wire (I know, I know, I’m sorry), an entire season of which is the show’s smallest unit, a show which humanizes everyone on both sides of the law. Same goes for Deadwood. Same goes for John From Cincinnati. Milch has deep affection for his broken characters. My kids need more of that kind of complexity. Not The Suite Life Of Zack and Cody.

    While I’m here, I’d love to know what Matt Taibbi does for you. He’s Rolling Stone‘s political correspondent and he excoriates political correspondents the same way Milch excoriates TV showrunners.

    Michael, the real double-plus benefit of digital media in the classroom isn’t just that kids recognize the form. Digital media lets me pull the world into my classroom for discussion in a way that textbook prompts simply do not. I tried my best to illustrate the difference here, though I realize it doesn’t fully make my point.

  9. I’ve found the biggest key to getting students to think is wait time. Complex thoughts require time to think.
    If we use wait time on the majority of questions, even those that don’t need it students get used to having time to think they will get used to doing it.

  10. Dan: Going after the “why” and “how” bits over simply the “what” nails the difference between teaching “Science” and teaching “science facts” (or Math vs. math facts, etc.). The creation of knowledge- whether it be at the Ph.D or 9th grade level- is a conversation between opposing viewpoints. Students are trained to believe that knowledge is static; that what we know now will always be true. Instead- and this is at least part of what you’re getting at- we need to teach students to effectively question and defend their knowledge. Admittedly, I stink at doing this all the time, but I’m getting better.

  11. Dan,
    The problem is that the medium of TV exists episodically because of advertising. The reason why HBOtime can show better, less episode-dependent stuff (like my beloved Wire and Rome) is because, well, they don’t have to sell ads. People pay extra for that programming.

    There’s a ton of shite TV out there, which is a problem, yes. And I’d love it if my kids (or my girlfriend, for that matter) watched better stuff. But better materials are useless without a better approach, which is why I’m happy to see you start thinking about questioning strategy, wait time, etc. I hate to stereotype math teachers, but it’s heartening to see some of you folks starting to drop the more problems! and faster! approach that my math colleagues seem to love (these are people who are personally offended when it’s suggested that they not assign as much homework when our kids are taking CAPT tests in March).

    I’m lucky enough to teach Film as Lit, which is entirely based on the idea that watching and rewatching scenes from quality movies will help students with their close-reading skills. We start Psycho today, and I’m planning on showing the entire film at least twice, if not more, over the next couple of weeks.

    Re: Taibbi, I’d like him better if he didn’t read like a good-guy version of some of the worst columnists for the New York Post. He’s way too clever by half, I think–it might just be that I’m getting old, but I’d rather read someone with calmer rhetoric make the same points.