Teach Like An Elective

Jerram Froese, taking offense that anyone would walk out of a conference session after it started:

Damn. If only our students could stand up and walk out of class at any time. Wow, people.

That’s a mixed metaphor right there, but an essential hypothetical for any classroom teacher and especially for core subject teachers who are (overall enrollment notwithstanding) guaranteed an audience year after year.

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. Not going to address the mixed metaphor.

    It’s definitely an interesting hypothetical. I would guess that it would probably be motivation to “improve” instruction so that kids will vote with their feet and chose to stay (btw, what happens if no one shows up to a talk at a conference? does the show go on like at movie theaters?), but Dan Willingham asks What Happens to School Choice if People Aren’t Rational and Choose Bad Schools? You can “serve” the students better and maybe improve customer satisfaction, but is it better?

    The culture I grew up in assumes that you can learn everything you want if you put in the effort. Teachers are there only to facilitate that process. If I could vote with my feet when I was in high school with respect to math, I would have voted for a bare-bones class where the teacher would show a few examples and some guided notes lasting 10-20 minutes.

    In high school, for example, I would’ve preferred a teacher telling me that an ellipse is a set of points where the sum of the distances from 2 distinct fixed points is same (and spent a minute explaining what that meant and its implications). I probably would’ve stood up and walked out if I saw a teacher passing out a cork board, a piece of string, 2 tacks and spend about about 10-20 minutes having students doing guided “discovery” drawing an ellipse and redrawing as we move those distinct points around and filling out a table on a worksheet to look for patterns. I resented doing those activities that reinforced a factoid/knowledge about ellipses that I already learned in the 1st minute. Maybe I benefitted from better retention because of activity, but it wasn’t worth my time.

    As a teacher, I know the second method results in improved retention (“Do you guys remember that activity where we…”) but not always necessarily of the mathematical principles. I guess this would be a whole other topic.

    As elegant as it is, math was to me, at the time, a means to an end (college). Over the years, as I read more math history, I began to appreciate its development over time and the ingenuity of people (ie why anyone would “invent” calculus).

    In core subjects like math, I wonder whether the kids appreciate the activities because of their mathematical elegance and enjoy it so much that they would seek out math even if it were an elective, or whether kids appreciate the activities because math is a required core and it is a nice distraction to the daily routine of lecture and assessment.

    A side note: In college I remember skipping math lectures but attending classes for which I wasn’t registered on word of mouth. I attended an entire semester of Astro 10 taught by Alex Filippenko. The class had more people in lecture than was registered. I felt bad when I arrived early and took a seat. If you google “Astronomy 10” you get the following description

    It is first-come, first-served seating, and the doors open at 10:30 am. Get there early if you want to get a seat! This is an exciting topic and Prof. …

    I guess things haven’t changed much..

  2. Maybe the ‘mixed metaphor’ label was intended to reflect incongruity between the conference room and the classroom? Metaphor or not, I am appalled when I sit in sessions and see participants come-and-go when they make their distracting decision to move on to a more appropriate session – putting on fresh litmus paper in order to jump in and out of whatever sessions they want [to disturb] until the right one comes along.

    As a learner, I am in control of what I learn and when I make the decision to respectfully attend a session that someone has worked hard on preparing, I can take pieces away – even if they are boring and I might want to walk. In that scenario, those pieces that I do take away are many times pieces that I didn’t expect – drawn from internal reflections and learning about/from another point of view.

    Students voting with their feet is merely hypothetical and theorizing about the possibility will probably lead only to more words for Google to search with little change in actual teaching practice. Maybe not… I don’t know. But, I have a presentation to work on for next week.

    P.S. maybe the title of the post could be ‘Teach like an Elective. Act Like a Professional.’

  3. @Jerram, for the record, I admire anyone who sees their own boredom as a personal failing. (ie. “if you’re bored, you’re boring.”) At a certain point, though – sitting in a falsely-billed, dull session with a promising session two doors down the hall, perhaps – I think that ethic reduces itself to nothing more than noble masochism

    Put another way, are there no circumstances under which you’d leave a session after it started?

  4. Put this way – I should have enough resources and know-how to be aware of the sessions I attend and know what I am getting into. With all of the tools at hand to evaluate what is coming around the corner, maybe it is the attendee’s that have the problem and not the presenters.

    Or, simply do not attend the conference at all if the risk of poor sessions is that high.

    You also seemed to miss my point that on the few occasions that I sat through a session that I miscalculated, I learned from it – things I hadn’t expected to learn.

    This all seems like a plain and clear double standard with the captive audience of today’s students eagerly waiting for the next bullet point back home. Like our students, if we give the person at the front of the room some slack and take the time to respectfully interact then we may surprise ourselves with some new knowledge.

  5. Wow. Let’s see. Why do people walk out of conference sessions after they’ve started?

    (1) I knew that already and your session isn’t going to teach me anything I didn’t already know.

    (2) You assume too much background knowledge on the topic that I do not have.

    (3) I just had lunch and am in a food coma and rather than falling asleep in your presentation and offending you that way, I’ll remove myself and return to my room for a nap.

    Some people will claim that they walk out because they are bored (either reason #1 or #2, but they aren’t introspective enough to realize it) or because they aren’t hooked (probably reason #1), but I’d imagine that the small minority of the US population who actually goes to professional conferences are educated enough to know when not to waste the presenter’s time. I’d wager that very few of them are leaving for reason #3. (Though there was one conference where I didn’t follow my own advice for #3 and slept so soundly that I drooled. :: shame face :: )

    If those very same people were students in a classroom, I’d further wager that they have the self-advocacy skills to deal with issues #1 and #2. If it is issue #1, you approach the teacher after class and ask to be placed into a more advanced class. If it is issue #2, you meet with the teacher after class and ask to be placed in a less advanced class. However, since these are single presentations, waiting until after class gets you nothing, since it isn’t as if there is going to be a second session where you will be correctly placed in the right location.

    But the minority of Americans.

    As teachers, we are educating the minority, but more importantly the majority. Have you ever read the newspaper and noticed the lack of SAT or even GRE words? How about the hordes of people who are excited about Harry Potter or Twilight (both Young Adult books)? That is because of the majority of Americans, those who read do so at an (average) 8th grade level. Your newspaper is written at the 8th grade level, etc. The evidence is all around you. And as my brother’s marketing professor explained, the majority of Americans regress to a 5th grade education level and never read another book after they are done with school, again. (Hence the show, “Are you smarter than a 5th grader.”)

    Are these individuals introspective enough to make the same calls that you or I would? The answer is probably, no. They’d leave for the following reasons:

    (1) Not enough special effects.

    (2) Socializing is more fun, less threatening to the self esteem, and a less painful experience.

    (3) XYZ-entertainer – rapper/singer, sports figure, reality tv celebrity – doesn’t need to know [subject], and they make bank so I don’t see why I should be here rather than waiting to be discovered.

    As the educated elite (hey, our founding fathers knew that the educated elite needed to shape the lives of the Average American … hello original purpose of the Electoral College), we aren’t afraid to take risks and personal growth to acquire knowledge. We know that it can help us reach our goals. And we know that it will help others, too, if only we can chain them to their chairs long enough to accept the forcefed knowledge.

    Some students open their minds willingly, usually the children of educated elite.

    Some students open their minds fearfully, usually the children of those who value education highly though they themselves don’t have it. These children are afraid of disappointing their parents, though also seduced by the messages that the media is sending them about the lack of importance of education.

    Some students open their minds after a shocking experience in their life, usually not caused by the educational system, which makes them realize that education is something they need to take advantage of. (Earlier this year, I listened to a panel of five students who went from failing and endangered, to honor roll students provide horrors from parents losing their jobs to wage-earner deportation to murder of a loved one, etc. that made them suddenly say, “Hey, school!” But these same students admitted that had their personal life tragedy not occurred, there wasn’t a damned thing that school could have done to bring them around.)

    And some students never open their minds, and then raise their children to despise school. And their children never open their minds because when school and parents conflict, the parental views win.

    In my altogether educational elite opinion, while there are students who won’t willingly open themselves to education, I have to hope that during their tenure in the public school system, they will accidentally learn something. Perhaps some knowledge will sneak in while they weren’t looking. And before they become adults and have the power to sign up for sub prime mortgages they cannot afford, perhaps they may even learn to stop and question the propaganda they are being fed. (We call this “critical thinking”, don’t we?)

    But if we give them the choice to leave the classroom, then they won’t even sit for the accidental learning. They’ll be out of there so fast our heads would spin.

    Though on the flip side, that would mean that the ones who stay are the ones who really want to learn and it would make for a better educational experience for them. I sometimes fear that by leaving no child behind keeping the hostile learners in the classroom, we are doing a disservice to the future educated elite.

  6. Entry barriers and costs are lowering for many experiences. Which means people are entering (and exiting) more events, because it’s easier and more free, as in beer and as in speech.

    I try to stay away from classes with high entry barriers and costs, and from classes with involuntary clients. The quality suffers.