Tiger Pride, our parents organization, brought Dr. Tim Elmore
in on Wednesday to speak to the ELA-8 faculty for Teacher Appreciation Week. After greeting the entire faculty with a high five, he began to speak and everyone in the room was immediately engaged. Mr. Elmore’s enthusiastic personality and sense of humor drew us all in. His presentation was especially insightful due to the fact that it related directly to what we see in the classroom every day.
He has termed the students we teach the “iY Generation” due to the proliferation of technology, especially Apple products, into their lives at an early age. He spoke of this generation’s lack of patience and willingness to give up easily, without much fight, when attempting to solve a problem that requires any real thought. When the answer to all of your questions is literally available at your fingertips (since the iPhone is now another appendage), it shouldn’t seem strange to us that this generation lacks patience and the willingness to problem solve. He cited a recent poll that said something like 80% of kids would rather you cut off their pinkie than take away their iPhone. Goodbye, Generation X. Welcome, Generation iY.
Dr. Elmore's point reminded me of a story that I heard at a conference a few years ago. Several teachers from our math department attended a two-day workshop on Singapore Math. Singapore Math came about when some educators from the U.S. decided to travel to Singapore to figure out how this small country consistently scored at the top of the world rankings in math (by the way, the U.S. typically finishes around number 30). They found that there were multiple reasons why their method for teaching math was successful. The main component of this system is something called “model drawing,” which allows each student to visually represent whatever amount is being dealt with in a problem and turn every problem into a type of visual puzzle that can be more easily solved.
Beyond the nuts and bolts of how the material was being taught, the researchers found that there was something that the Singaporean teachers constantly reminded their students. There were two terms that were always reinforced and pounded into the brains of these kids from a young age. The two words were “attitude” and “perseverance.” This was especially striking to the researchers from the U.S. They went over seas looking for some magical method that they could bring back to the United States to teach our kids. Model drawing was a main component, for sure, but what they really noticed was that these kids were willing and eager to tackle any problem the teacher gave them, without even a hint of complaint.
To prove this, one of the Singaporean instructors decided to split the third-grade class into small groups and give each group a word problem. The catch was that the problem they gave was straight out of a fifth-grade book. The multi-step problem included topics that the third-graders had not yet been taught. The students were told to spend as much time as they needed to try to figure out the problem. Not a single kid asked the teacher why they were being given this difficult problem, nor why the problem contained topics they had not covered. That speaks to “attitude."
On average, each group spent over an hour struggling through the elements of this single problem, drawing models for each step and attempting to figure out what was being asked. They worked and worked, conferring with their group members, bouncing ideas off of each other. They never stopped trying the to solve the problem until the teacher made them stop. That is “perseverance.” Many groups solved the problem and some did not. But all of the groups solved at least a few steps of the problem by trying different methods. They drew models. They got up and tried to make manipulatives out of paper. They tried anything they could to work it out.
When the researchers got back to the U.S., they thought it would be interesting to try the same experiment with students here. They guessed that our kids probably would not have the same perseverance as the kids from Singapore, but thought it might be enlightening to see what would happen. They broke the students into groups, gave them a word problem two grade levels above their current level and waited. But they didn’t have to wait long. On average, the American students spent a total of 34 seconds on the problem before giving up. No, that is not a typo -- 34 seconds. No more discussion among the group, no attempt at trying an alternate way of doing the problem, just a simple, “I don’t get it… I’m done. This is too hard. How do they expect us to know this?” Perseverance? None. Attitude? Not good.
Does this speak to EVERY American student? Of course not. Do we teach kids every day who work hard and struggle through their problems? Yes. But I’d be willing to bet that every teacher in the U.S. at every level of education has seen this lack of perseverance in their classroom. It’s the kid who buys a new video game and can’t get past the first level after two minutes and goes to the internet to find a cheat code that will take him straight to level 2 with no effort at all. This is more the norm now than the exception.
Mr. Elmore spoke to this when he said that this generation is the Sports Center generation. They see the Top 10 plays of the day with the spectacular dunks and the acrobatic receptions, but they don’t see the hours upon hours of work that were put in to produce those results. They love the admiration that comes from producing something great, but are they willing to struggle through the hard work that leads to that?
Students and parents have to understand that it’s going to take some time to grasp that new concept the teacher is showing you, and it might actually take more than one example problem for you to understand. You might have to struggle through problem after problem before you “get it” and that’s okay. You are going to miss that three-pointer over and over in the driveway before you start stripping them in games.
The students from Singapore hear these traits of “perseverance” and “attitude” reinforced in their classrooms every day, and that is something our students, parents and teachers can learn from. Maybe soon our iY Generation can spend 34 MINUTES on that problem instead of 34 seconds. Yeah, yeah, maybe it’s not a whole hour, but let’s take baby steps on the way to displacing Singapore from that No. 1 slot.