I had a surreal moment this year. I’d almost finished a lesson when one boy, usually a hyperkinetic little bundle of enthusiasm, raised his hand.
“So, like, I don’t really understand anything you’re saying,” he informed me, “But I can still get the right answer.”
He smiled, waiting.
“Which part is giving you trouble?” I asked.
“Oh, you were talking about this extra stuff,” he said, “like the ideas behind it and everything. I don’t… you know… do that.”
I blinked. He blinked. We stood in silence.
“So is that okay?” he concluded. “I mean, as long as I can get the right answer?”
Here it was, out in the open: the subtext of practically every class I’ve ever taught. I’ve grown accustomed to yanking my side of the rope in an unspoken tug-of-war. The teacher emphasizes conceptual understanding. The students conspire to find shortcuts around it. So it always goes.
But I’d never heard a student break the fourth wall quite like this. It was as if Peter Jackson popped up on camera saying, “I know you want a good story, but what about a bloated trilogy full of mind-numbing battle scenes instead? You’ll still buy a ticket, right?”
“Is that okay?” my student repeated. “I mean, I can get the right answer!”
He had a point. What else is there?
There’s a powerful ideology at work here, one my student has perhaps internalized without realizing: the unshakeable belief that math is all about right answers, and nothing more.
The Church of the Right Answer. Continue reading