The Absolute Value of Humans

This week I taught 5th graders about integers.  We discussed the number line they were used to, which started with zero and only had positive numbers, and then I added in negative numbers.  We practiced getting used to this number line by doing the integer dance.  It closely resembled the electric slide, but the point was to get the students used to moving positive and negative directions.  After all, number lines can be tricky.

We are taught in primary grades that zero is a starting place.  Eventually we get fluent enough in math to amend our previous thoughts about zero and the number line to include negative numbers.  So, now our number line increases to show that really, zero is the middle of a big scale with infinite integers on each side. All numbers on both sides gain their identity from the zero, or the origin.  So, you could say the value of a number is dictated by how far away a number is from the origin, or zero.  This is the absolute value. This week while teaching I wondered “what if we saw people with absolute values, instead of only positives and negatives?”

Zero is the only integer that is neither positive nor negative.  In theory we all want to be greater than zero.  No one wants to be a negative number.  Theoretically being a negative number means you are worse than when you started at the origin.  Zero technically means no objects are present.  If you offer a child zero popsicles, zero pieces of candy, or zero trips to the zoo it might seem to them that zero is a negative, but really, it isn’t.  It’s just unrealized potential.  Zero of something just means nothing has been added or taken away.

Life is just a giant number line.  It’s a series of positives and negatives.  We take steps forward, and we take steps backward. Sometimes we are way ahead of the origin.  Sometimes we are behind the origin.  There are times we tend to feel our value is less than zero when more bad than good happens.  I was encouraged when I thought about absolute value.  We can be -6 or 6 from zero, and the absolute value of both of these is still 6.  There are no negatives in absolute value.  So, even when we have terrible things happen, our value is never negative.  We are always just so many spaces away from where we started, and knowing that can help us get back on the right path, which is right back up the number line.  As we take steps up and down the number line, instead of focusing on the negatives, it is a lot more fun to pretend we are just doing the electric slide.

Thinking Deeply about Thinking Deeply

Metacognition can be a dangerous activity.  Thinking about other people’s thinking  can be even scarier.  I’ve had the unique experience to have spent time in various classrooms in the past six months ranging from 2nd grade with 7 and 8 year olds, to 5th grade with 10 and 11 year olds, to 9th- 12th graders who can be anywhere from 14-18.  They all have something frightening in common.  They are all used to getting an easy answer.

I think the greatest problem students face today is the lack of struggle. The greatest reward comes with hard work.  The struggle makes you stronger.  A butterfly builds a cocoon for itself, only to have to tear that same cocoon apart after it completes metamorphosis.  What would happen if someone tore open the shell and let the butterfly out?  It dies.  It won’t be able to fly because it has never had to fight through the material to gain freedom.  Are we cutting open the cocoons of students and standing there in disbelief when they just give up? Are we handicapping them for the world they will live in and things will not be easy?  What will they do when they can’t google every answer?  Technology solves a lot of problems, but it creates as many as it solves.

My feelings on this stem from the time I have spent in the classroom.  It does not matter what the age group, the questions students ask are always the same. The most disturbing questions I’ve heard are ones that I would have never thought to ask my teacher.  “Do I have to write the sentences?”  “Do I have to show my work?”  “Can I use a calculator?”  Most people would think, yes, but I asked my teacher those same questions back when I was in school, but there is a big difference in that now students are used to not having to do those things, and when asked to do them they act like you are trying to kill them.

I know that most people will claim my education in the late 80’s to early 90’s by all rights was sub-par simply because we only had one computer in the back of the classroom, and we only used it to play Oregon Trail.  Sure, we were taught in units about dinosaurs and Native Americans.  Do I remember everything I was taught?  Absolutely not, however, I gained something valuable from this kind of learning.  I learned how to research without the benefit of typing something into a search engine.  I learned how to glean important information and throw out what I didn’t need. I learned proper sentence structure when I wrote those 300 book reports. I was forced to not just read to do a book report, but I had to think about that book.  I made models of volcanos, Native American villages, and cells.  We collected bugs, leaves, and wildflowers.  We labeled, we followed rubrics, and we didn’t have a clue that we were doing anything of substance because it all seemed kind of fun.  But, even with all the fun we had, there were no easy answers.  We had no Google.  We had World Book Encyclopedia and whatever the card catalog had for us to use, IF we could in fact figure out the Dewey Decimal System.

Students of today rely heavily on technology to do their work for them.  If you don’t believe me, just ask them.   The local high school is full of classrooms where students spend all their spare time on cellphones, or other mobile devices, and they are traumatized if you ask them to put it down for a few minutes to actually talk with them in person.  Their only thoughts during class in the local high school are when can they can get their phones back out to play music, take selfies, and text their friends. Coupled with this problem there is the other  issue that has nothing to do with technology.  It has to do with a mindset that this access to technology has created. Because there is always an easy answer, they do not know what it is like for a problem to take many steps and time to solve.  We know that in the real world the jobs that we have are not likely to have answers waiting for us on google.  Students that are in today’s classrooms, getting ready for tomorrow’s job market need to understand how to think. Right now they are used to letting a computer do most of that for them.  What does this mean for our education system?

The reality is students might not remember all the finer aspects of geometry, Spanish III, or chemistry.  They will remember working together to solve problems, and what is the most important to remember?  Sometimes it is healthy to give a student a problem and let them work through it. We should be asking them hard questions.  We should ask questions that may have more than one answer.   We should teach them to question things and not just take things at face value.  We need students that struggle, and are given time to struggle.  We need to stop letting students google answers, and instead ask them to dig deep, think deeply,  and embrace the struggle.  Let these students figure out for themselves how great it feels to accomplish something they never thought they would ever be able to do.  If we are truly going to prepare students for jobs that are not created yet, we have to change the way we educate them so that while technology is used, it is not the focus.  If someone had focused on technology when I was in school I would only know about cellphones the size of an infant, a computer without a mouse, a dot matrix printer, and an overhead projector.  Those were all great, but they weren’t the focus.  The focus was on what I needed to make me an educated member of society.

We can’t predict the future, even as teachers stand with the future in front of them everyday.  We don’t teach subjects.  We teach students.  What do the students of today need to know to be a well rounded person? We know they will figure out the technology, but will they figure out how to embrace the struggle before we have a country full of CEOs that are looking for the easy way out? Struggling makes us strong.  Teaching students to think and ask questions trumps showing them how to find the answers.  Answers will come, questions require digging deeper.