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Saturday, February 17, 2007

A Fly on the Wall

Yesterday, I had some time to kill while waiting for a train. I decided to spend it in the cafe of a local Borders. There I was, reading my book, drinking my hot chocolate, and generally enjoying the extra time, when my calm was shattered by the conversation beside me.

A man and a woman were engaged in a tutorial session for the calculus. The man was berating the young woman for not practicing between sessions, pointing out that she was wasting his time and her money. At first, I was on his side. I am well acquainted with the frustration that comes in watching a student struggle with a concept they showed near mastery of the week before. But gradually, my feeling started to change. (I am aware that many of you are judging me for my rudeness. I'm certain none of you have ever eavesdropped, especially when the topic is of particular interest to you.)

The tutor was, for want of a better term, being a dick. His method of instruction differed little from what she could have read in her textbook. It was dry, authoritative rather than explanatory, and lacking completely the level of personal attention possible in one-on-one tutoring. Teachers with thirty students are forced to teach to the center of the curve. ( Well, strictly speaking, they don't have to, but there certainly is a strong incentive to do so.) When you have only one student, you have the ability to tailor your teaching technique to a style that works for that one student. Take the time to explain why any number raised to the power of zero is one. Show on a graph why the derivative of all constants is zero. These are examples from this particular lesson; I'm not pulling them out of thin air. Give examples that the student can understand and that will be meaningful to them. The only analogy this guy used was a lengthy one concerning Tiger Woods, and this girl was not a golfer.

With guys like this on the loose, it's no wonder people hate and fear math.

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