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Is the Goal of College Learning or Self-Esteem?

Class Act: A teacher's View

Welcome to college - the beginning of a wonderful academic, athletic, and social adventure.

Or is it? As some colleges face struggles with declining enrollments, tighter budgets and instructors worried about their student evaluations, that adventure is losing some of its rigor.

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The reason: a focus on how we teach and on boosting the self-esteem of students. Some schools will go to great lengths to identify learning styles and have instructors address the different types. Students, meanwhile, face minimal expectations to adapt to different teaching styles.

It's almost to the point where personality tests are as important as SATs used to be. I believe this shift can be partly linked to the influence education-school departments where, at least in my field of mathematics, basic skills and necessary content mastery seem to be taking a back seat to "making the subject fun."

Don't get me wrong. I believe that engaging students is important, but so are many of the mundane computations, like solving a simple algebraic equation or knowing your times tables.

Say you're teaching a group of students how to play basketball. But the group participates only in game-like scenarios, like scrimmaging. They would not practice dribbling and passing except in the context of scrimmaging.

Nobody would teach basketball this way, of course. So why is math any different?

Learning multiplication tables is like the dribbling and the fun activity that engages the student is comparable to the scrimmage. Most people need the repetitive drilling of a skill to become a successful "player." Rote learning does have its place in the classroom, as does the fun activity.

A lack of emphasis on content knowledge perhaps is manifested in the "self-esteem" building that many of the education courses emphasize. Self-esteem should be a natural byproduct of working hard to accomplish something. It comes from the mundane and sometimes tedious work in any particular course, as well as from major accomplishments, such as graduating from college.

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Praise and reward for minimal effort or just attempting something isn't appropriate at the postsecondary level. Someone who needs remedial mathematics work in college and does well deserves praise and reward, for example, but that student still needs to realize that they are at a level lower than they should be.

Over the last dozen years or so, mathematics educators from two camps - mathematics departments and education departments - have been trying to improve the way that mathematics is "delivered" to students. Traditionally trained mathematicians may not have received much, if any, preparation regarding how people learn. Many of us could probably learn quite a bit regarding teaching style from the education schools.

At the same time, the education camp needs to understand that in addition to great teaching style, there is a need for competency in content (whatever the subject matter). They must also acknowledge the inherent danger of giving a false sense of security to students who have deficiencies in basic content.

It could be argued that many mathematics departments' primary concern is content, with teaching a distant second. Many education departments focus first on teaching, with content seemingly less important. I would argue that both camps can learn quite a bit from each other and that successful educators should give both content and pedagogy relatively equal import.

* Jim Wright is an assistant professor of mathematics at Keuka College in Keuka Park, N.Y.

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