Have you ever been on a long train ride? If so, what about it do you recall? What were you doing? Perhaps you were talking to a friend, reading a book, or eating a sandwich. Maybe, after those options were exhausted, you briefly looked out the window because there was nothing left to do. Were you concerned at all with the intricacies of the train? Did your glances outside provide you with meaningful information about your location? Did you speak to any other passengers? For me, train rides are passive experiences. I just find it hard to care. You get on, try desperately to amuse yourself, make a transfer or two, then you’re done. All the while, you follow the instructions of some disembodied conductor who you probably never see.
So, why all the train talk? Well, to understand where I’m going, let’s talk about MMORPG’s. I’m not being specific, so just think of the most generic one you know. In my experience, these games are boring. No matter what role you choose, group play boils down to a chore. If you heal, you spend your days staring at bars and trying to keep them full. As a DPS-er, you spam hotkeys for damaging skills. For such a seemingly team-oriented activity, it ends up lacking interpersonal interaction and more importantly, fun. These types of games are trains. You hop on, do your menial task, and somehow end up at the end.
Now for an exception: Guild Wars 2. Love it or hate it, it does classes right. Each class has its own way of doing things, but they can all perform the most basic roles in some capacity. Yes, you can still min/max your party, but you can also from an impromptu group of any class combination and do just fine. What interests me is that the game puts you in a position where you are competent. This means that it can assume that you can get through any situation on your own. Because of this, it can spend its time being more concerned with throwing challenges and events at you, and less time making you worry about your party composition. Guild Wars 2 is not a train. It is a tandem bike. You take control of your actions, and the game trusts you. You feel like an independent entity, but you also feel completely capable of participating in a group. You may not progress as quickly as in some other MMORPG’s, but the progression feels better because you had a more active role in it.
That got me thinking about what other systems could benefit from a tandem bike approach. A while ago, my FOSS professor assigned the NY and MA math curriculum standards for us to read. Is math education a train or a tandem bike? I read through them both, and what I saw was appalling.
What I saw was intricate, complicated, and overwhelmingly boring. Educators have taken mathematics and separated it, then taken each part and made it more complicated than it needs to be. The documents were trains unto themselves. There are lists of required skills, and I know there is no way that we are communicating them to the students. They sit quietly in the train and encounter problems passively. They do them in their little seats alone. They pass or fail, but either way the whole train keeps moving.
How do we turn this monster into a tandem bike that kids can ride into the sunset of mathematical success? I think it’s easy. First, slow down. We are trying to do too many things. Tandem bikes are not Shinkansen. Since the curriculum is simpler, we can afford to make the required skill set completely transparent. Show them where they’re going and trust them to be able to ride. You don’t need half a page to tell a kid “learn about fractions.” Math is the easiest subject to implement this for, because it all boils down to easily definable functions.
Second, challenge the class, not the individuals. Unlike trains, tandem bikes are cooperative. Leverage the hive mind. You’ll end up with stronger “riders.”
Finally, and most importantly, focus on challenges. Who decided that it was a good idea to teach math as a set of steps? Math is about manipulating quantities. The best math students are the ones who can make connections between aspects of the subject. In what profession is this outdated method OK? Chefs don’t cook with recipes alone, they understand food. Artists don’t paint by numbers. They learn to see. Throw challenges at the students and be there for them when they fall off of the bike. They will get stronger. In fact, you can probably afford to speed up at higher grade levels. Use the behemoth of a document as a set of expected results, not as a road-map for teaching. Train passengers can afford to be fat. Riders can’t. Observe as the students ascend.