By Stuart Singer, author of The Algebra Miracle
Recently Mel Riddile sent me a link to a study conducted at Southern Methodist University that found significant improvement for students who were taught by a method known as “personalization” in Algebra. It was an affirmation of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) commitment to adding real world applications to educational curricula. A few days later, Mel passed along an article (Yes, he sends me a constant flow of educational links just like he does to everyone else) about the statistical realities of a losing basketball team repeatedly fouling their opponents in an attempt to reduce their deficit. It was a great example of the utilization of data analysis to prove that some commonly used strategies in the world of athletics are ineffective.
The CCSS and the real world
The question of whether to foul was actually a good illustration of how the utilization of actual student experiences and interests in the classroom can enhance education. While many administrators and teachers dismiss this concept as too time consuming and focusing on items not found on “the test”, it may actually hold the key to improving academic achievement.
The powerful combination of knowledge and interest is not found exclusively in schools. A friend once explained to me the reason for her passion for the Washington Nationals baseball team. “My husband would constantly explain to me the nuances of the games as we were watching them on TV. He would tell me stories that gave me historical perspective and anecdotes about each player. The more I understood the strategy of the game and the personality of the participants the more passionate I became about the team.” The same formula can be incorporated into the classroom.
A recipe for Biology success
The Science Department Chair at my former school had long held the belief that the entire Biology curriculum could be taught through the study of cooking and baking. She would regale me with plans to demonstrate in a kitchen topics found in the classroom text. The magic of yeast was a treasure trove illustrating asexual reproduction, the workings of the cell and the action of fermentation. Anatomy could be covered when working with beef and chicken, vertebrates and invertebrates. Suddenly “dissecting” a chicken could have both an educational and nutritional component. There would be a portion on the mystery of cooking without heat (ceviche) or the more common method of breaking down proteins in a pan or oven. Studying the interaction of salt and sugar in brining and why it affects the texture and moisture content of proteins such as beef and chicken would fit nicely in a unit that examined the science of caramelizing food. The bio-chemistry of baking could span a myriad of topics.
Height, weight and mathematics
For years I had a tremendous response to the use of the real world in my math classes. During the study of right triangles my classes would march out to the football field armed with only string, yardsticks and the knowledge that similar triangles had proportional sides. The task was to determine the height of the field’s light standards without ever leaving the ground. The solution was found in the relationship of the shadows cast by the goalposts (a known height of 20 feet) and the towering lights. Their enthusiasm for the task which took about fifteen minutes was palpable.
Throughout the year within the confines of the classroom students would solve problems involving the success of field goal attempts by their trajectory, speed and distance, the most advantageous price for concert tickets based on demand and calculating the dimensions for a fenced field that would maximize potential crop yield. Creating these problems took additional time but the results elicited from the students justified the cost.
Statistical analysis of sports was always a major interest and easy to acquire. Would it benefit a football team to always attempt a two-point conversion after a touchdown? Do sacrifice bunts really result in more runs? Which sports league actually has the most parity? Medical issue such as blood pressure, heart rates and the path of epidemics could be instructive and catch the attention of many adolescents.
Realistic education and real world education
In the age of accountability and testing, that Biology teacher’s dream of teaching a science course within the confines of a kitchen was compelling but unlikely to be broadly accepted. However, there is little doubt that students will respond to concrete educational examples from the world they inhabit. Teachers should be encouraged by school leaders to incorporate such exercises into their curriculum on a regular basis. If such an approach can be implemented across all disciplines a building can quickly become an institution of greatly improved academic enthusiasm and success.