I played school pretty well until the middle of my 8th grade year when I had a revelation – school was more about playing along than about learning. At that point, I decided to stop playing. Besides, I figured out that I already knew the really important stuff they were trying to teach me and most of what they were trying to teach me didn’t matter. For example, my older brother taught me everything I desperately needed to know to “do Algebra” in one 30 minute session when I was in the 4th grade. Suffering through an entire year of Algebra in the 8th grade was painful. I went in to 8th grade Algebra knowing that Algebra is basically taking what you know and using logical rules to manipulate it to figure out what you don’t know. However, the way my Algebra class was taught, I doubt the rest of the kids ever got to this understanding. Real Algebra was very important and useful to me. School Algebra was boring and served no purpose other than to do 1 – 35 odd.
Why did I have such a need for and interest in Algebra as a 4th grader? Because my hobby has always been learning by doing and figuring things out. I was in a grocery store with my mom and saw a Street and Smith Football annual and begged for it. Money was tight, but my mom understood how important football statistics were to me. I showed her the official player statistics and told her I could make sure my compilations from the box scores I had tallied all season the year before were right. If I found a mistake, I could fix my predictions for the coming football season.
Yes, as a 2nd grader, I started cutting out all of the box scores for baseball and football and I compiled all of the statistics for every player whose name appeared in a box score published in my local newspaper. Why? Because I could AND I learned something new every day. During the off season, I would do all of the calculations and double check my during-the-season work. School math meant nothing to me. If I encountered a “how do I…?” question, I had an older brother I could ask. Finally, I had access to an outside resource I could use to check my work. I was thrilled!
Why did I need Algebra when I was in the 4th grade? Well, Street and Smith introduced me to a measure called the “quarterback rating” but they didn’t give the formula for it. I had to figure out the formula, so I thought through what I thought it must include (attempts, completions, interceptions, touchdowns, and passing yards) and set out to figure out how they went together. Completions, touchdowns, and yards are good. Attempts and interceptions are not, but for every completion you must have an attempt. I started with what I thought was a good model and used the Street and Smith calculations for multiple players to refine my model and ultimately get to the point where I could consistently come up with the same calculations they did. Mine were done without a calculator!
I got a D in 8th grade Algebra. I refused to do my homework and to memorize definitions of stuff I just knew. Additive identity? It’s a 0 and you can add it to something and not change its value, why does it need a fancy name?
As I reflect on my experiences as a learner outside of school, I understand more about why I approached teaching the way I did. I worked very hard to manipulate my students in to developing a hobby of learning. This is not the same as a habit of learning. A hobby of learning is more like something you do when you don’t have anything else to do because it is fun to you.
With the advent of web technologies, teachers have more opportunities than ever to help kids develop a hobby of learning. Can you imagine what I would have done as a sports statistics geek with access to the resources kids have now? Would I have had my own sports statistics blog or wiki or would I have contributed to ESPN.com? Would my teachers have checked in on my web publications or fussed at me for not doing my homework?
Now, more than ever before, our young people need to be connected to their world. Can they simultaneously be connected to their world and our “standards of learning”? How can we leverage web technologies and kids’ passions outside of school to ensure they develop a hobby of learning instead of a distaste for school?