Friday, August 18, 2006

The Problem With Remedials

So, in a little more than a week, I'm going to be teaching Math 0900 (remedial pre-algebra) again.

About a month ago a neighbor of mine that I'm really not fond of (for reasons I won't go into here) stopped me as she was driving by and told me she was enrolled in my class for the fall semester. She said she'd "never been good at math" (oh, if I had a dollar for every time I'd heard that and five dollars for every time I'd heard it from someone who never said it again after being in my class). But then came the kicker. She told me, in almost a bragging tone, that she didn't even know her multiplication tables. So I told her, "Well, that's the very first thing I'm gonna have you do then, is learn your multiplication tables, so you might as well start now and get yourself some flash cards." And she waved it off with a noncommittal noise.

This, my friends, is the problem with some remedial students. They've been so bad at math for so long that they have made it part of their identity. Part of them wants to take this math class and pass it, but part of them wants to do it without learning any actual math, just like they did in all their other math classes. Kind of like the guy who dreams of being president of the company but shows up late to work every day. This wouldn't bother me so much except that these are the same people who will take it out on you if they don't pass. You, as the person who enters the F on the grade sheet, will be the whipping boy for the collective rage at every bad math teacher they've ever had, every administrator with an asinine social promotion policy, who got them into the habit of failing at math. Or, what might be worse, they will take it out on themselves in a self-defeating frenzy that will ensure that future efforts to teach them math will be cut off at the knees.

Now, this isn't all remedial students. Some small fraction of them (10%?) are there for a refresher course; maybe it's been 2 years or 20 years since they last learned it, but if they ever learned it to begin with, it'll come back to them. Some similarly small proportion of them are there because an advisor suffering from "rectal-cranial inversion" assured them none of their credits transferred or no, there isn't a placement test. The rest of them are all there because they never learned the math in the first place, and I'd estimate about 30% never learned this math at all (you'd be surprised how many people have graduated high school without it, even though it's nominally a requirement, or blew off the class and still got a good enough grade). But it's the remaining 50% that are there because they mis-learned math at some point: either they missed some crucial lessons when they moved or their parents divorced, or they had a bad teacher who taught them to add fractions by adding the denominators, etc. ad nauseam.

Somewhere along the line most of these people became attached to (or, in some cases you could call it "obsessed with") doing math the wrong way, figuring that if they only did it this way it would all magically be right. I have literally seen people who are so devoted to a particular technique (one of the most common is "adding something to both sides") that they will do it on EVERY problem, even if you explain to them what that technique really means and when it's appropriate and when it's not appropriate, even if FIVE SECONDS BEFORE you've just walked them through the reasoning of why it's not appropriate to use in this problem, they will STILL go back to trying to use that technique. If you've never tried to break someone of a mental habit like that before, you have no idea how hard it is. It almost makes me want to get a job making smokers quit smoking, just so I can catch a break. Smokers at least have an open-ended timetable. I have eight weeks, because if I can't break their bad habits before about halfway through the semester, they're not likely to be able to catch up before the end.

I never want to teach adults remedial math again, or at least not until I feel I'm up for an extreme challenge. But hey, it pays the bills.