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Wednesday 6 July 2016

What is the bottom line?

As my school enters its summer holidays and a new set of exam results are due, I wanted to share some related reflections I have had. The truth is, this time of year terrifies me and excites me all the same. The prospect of a long summer holiday is great and usually comes with a flurry of ideas, plans and resolutions for the future. Then, before the holidays have even really kicked in to gear, the IB results come out and I get as nervous about them as I did when they were mine! I have always subscribed to the philosophy that exam results should be a symptom of a good education rather than the goal itself, but I know how important the right numbers are to a) students who need them to pass on to their next stage and b) managers and directors who care for the reputation of the school. I would be in denial if I said they weren't important to me too. Obviously they are for the two reasons listed above, but also because you need them to justify the afore mentioned philosophy. I was recently asked (in an environment where I needed to answer carefully) what I was expecting from exam results this year by some one who is a former teacher. In typical fashion my focus is on what I wish I had said rather than what I did. Here is what I wish I had said....

Well, as you might remember from your classroom days, you have tried your best to offer the rounded, engaging, focused, sound, rigorous and worthwhile mathematics education that you set out to do. You have designed tasks, given feedback, had meetings, given pep talks, run extra sessions, set personal targets and had a few sleepless nights worrying if you have done everything you can for the students. Despite all that, there is no real way of predicting what will happen because, at the end of the day, our business is people not products.

I expect some students to be elated and proud of how their efforts paid off as they achieved their goals or higher. I expect some to be disappointed and some to wonder why they bothered when all the system has done is confirm their lack of worth. I expect others to have a cursory glance and then go back to their xbox. I expect some to be grateful and others to disappear in to the ether. I expect to feel a wave of personal pride at having made a difference to some peoples lives, and then to put my head in my hands and wonder what else I could have done to make a bigger difference even after 20 years in the classroom.

I expect that all the attention will go on the number of top grades and the number of those that missed a passing grade. I expect that no one will reflect on the 5 that should have been a 6 or vice-versa.

Above all that, I expect students to know how to quote and question statistics they read in the news. I expect them to know how mathematics is a powerful tool that helps us describe the world around us, from its diversity, vast inequalities, misconceptions and models for the future. I expect them to have a sense of how mathematics underpins so many other areas of study and how, in itself, it can be a source of wonder and beauty. I expect them to be able to reflect on activities, experiences and discussions that have helped them understand all the things mathematics can be and how that understanding, combined with all their other experiences, helps them to become critical thinking, global citizens for the future. I hope and expect that my students have become more human as a result of their experiences as our charges.

All the while, I hope that students get what they need for the next stage of their lives. I hope that the percentage breakdowns fit nicely on a graph that can be shown and shared to make sure that my focus can remain on the above and the philosophy that exam results are a desirable symptom of a good education rather than the principle goal.

Sure – I understand about bottom lines, believe me, they are never far from my thoughts. I am actually really proud of a host of wonderful results throughout the history of our department, but nothing like as proud as I am of what we offer students by way of an education and of the students who grab those opportunities at what ever level they are operating.

That’s what kind of results I expect this year!

As term wound down and I had a couple of odd lessons left over, I showed my Maths Studies class an episode of 'Numbers' - the FBI show where they employ a consultant mathematician to help them solve crimes. The episode focussed on a professor who was working on a system of 'sabermetrics' that was being apllied to people in general. An analysis of statistics that determine which people, which neighbourhoods etc that would benefit most from investment so that money wasn't wasted on the others. A really scary, but beleivable idea for all the holywood licence that they use. The end of the episode focusses on the differences between developing mathematics and using mathematics and about recognising how it can be used as a force for good and evil. The episode prompted me to to remember this anonymous quote...

Dear Teacher,

I am a survivor of a concentration camp. My eyes saw what no man should witness:

Gas chambers built by learned engineers.

Children poisoned by educated physicians.

Infants killed by trained nurses.

Women and babies shot and burned by high school and college graduates.

So I am suspicious of education. My request is: Help your students become human. Your efforts must never produce learned monsters, skilled psychopaths, educated Eichmanns.

Reading, writing, arithmetic are important only if they serve to make our children more human.

So - I suppose I have just been reminding myself that YES, we and our students will be judged by numbers, grades and statistics and YES that is important and OK, BUT NO it is not the main thing by which we should judge our success as teachers nor that by which students should judge their own. The IB philosophy, learner profile and ATTL demands a good deal more than that which will ultimately not be tested by exams and there is always more work to be done on that!

Have a great summer Northern Hemisphere teachers and a great weekend everybody else!



IB Americas
30 Jul 2016


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