The Church of the Right Answer

Math with Bad Drawings

I had a surreal moment this year. I’d almost finished a lesson when one boy, usually a hyperkinetic little bundle of enthusiasm, raised his hand.

“So, like, I don’t really understand anything you’re saying,” he informed me, “But I can still get the right answer.”

He smiled, waiting.

“Which part is giving you trouble?” I asked.

“Oh, you were talking about this extra stuff,” he said, “like the ideas behind it and everything. I don’t… you know… do that.”

I blinked. He blinked. We stood in silence.

“So is that okay?” he concluded. “I mean, as long as I can get the right answer?”

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Here it was, out in the open: the subtext of practically every class I’ve ever taught. I’ve grown accustomed to yanking my side of the rope in an unspoken tug-of-war. The teacher emphasizes conceptual understanding. The students conspire to find shortcuts around it. So it always…

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