Adventures in (Senior) Learning

my math exercise book

I am happy to report that I have completed my math class, and that I passed it. But it wasn’t always pretty, and it often resulted in frustration, anger, and broken pencils. I may or may not have broken a few other small items as well, in the heat of working on homework problems that I should have been able to solve but couldn’t. But that’s all water under the bridge. It’s over now, and I made it. In my darkest days as a student, I promised myself that pass or fail, when I completed the class I would write about my experience here, and although summer is beginning and I have a host of tasks that I’ve put off during the last few weeks as I studied for my final, I am trying to fulfil that promise now.

And so here is my first discovery: All teachers should be granted time off (course load reductions) every few years to take a course that is completely out of their area of expertise. In other words, every teacher should experience what I did last semester, because learning something completely new provides a critically important window to show teachers how their students feel and what they encounter as learners. My greatest regret about the whole experience of taking math as a retiree is that I cannot put what I’ve learned to use in my own classroom. Would I have changed my teaching methods if I’d had this experience earlier? Perhaps not. But I would have been more sympathetic to students’ complaints and frustrations in learning new material. I would have worked harder to find alternate delivery methods to make sure that material was accessible. I wouldn’t have been so quick to shrug off my students’ inability to master content by assuming they simply weren’t taking the class seriously enough. I’m absolutely sure that the taking a class like this (assuming that it was not simply added onto my other duties, but rather that my teaching load was reduced to allow me adequate time to engage in the class) would have made me a better teacher.

Good teachers, those who are engaged with their subjects, tend to be intuitive learners in their area of expertise. But this is a problem for their teaching, because many students they encounter will not be intuitive learners in that area. Taking a class out of my area of knowledge forced me to pay attention to how I learn. Certainly we teachers have been aware of different learning styles for decades, but there is a real difference in awareness of a thing and direct experience of it. If we are really interested in teaching, in transmitting not only knowledge but critical thinking skills, then we teachers need to immerse ourselves in a fresh learning experience every so often to enable us to check our assumptions, to experience failures, and, when necessary, to adjust our techniques–and our expectations. And the closer that learning experience comes to our students’ experience, the better.

Another important thing I learned is that there is a difference between showing someone something and teaching them something. Unfortunately, I’m not quite sure what that difference is. I think it has to do with paying close attention to feedback from the student–and not just verbal or written feedback but nonverbal cues as well. This is an area that deserves more study and observation.

On a purely personal level, I believe I had a better chance of success in this class today, as a senior citizen, than I would have had as a young adult, and not just because I have much more free time at my disposal. Given that my most recent math class was in 1979 (it was called “Terminal Math” — not because it killed you, but because it was a curricular dead end), one would think that I might have struggled with memory problems. The truth, however, is that I was a much more experienced learner and was therefore able to contextualize information in a way that wasn’t possible for me in my twenties. I was aggressive in using YouTube videos for additional learning, and I was far more focused and determined than I had been in my younger years. In other words, whatever I have lost in terms of memory function, I have gained in terms of experience and critical thinking ability.

Pure bull-headedness helped me pull through as well. So, in addition to a larger reserve of learning experience and critical thinking skills, a greater store of patience also helped me to progress through the class (snapped pencils and crumpled paper notwithstanding). These assets are all important factors in student success. All of them are something that young adults typically lack, however, which makes you wonder about how successful college learning really can be.

I had one final asset that helped me make it through the class. A superpower, if you will: I was willing to fail the course and take it again if necessary. But most traditional college students do not have this option. The clock is running, and they just want to get through, tick off the class, and proceed to the next one. As long as education is seen as an economic good and learning institutions mere factories to produce workers (and, unfortunately, to produce debt as well–something that is inherent in the capitalist control of the state), education will be mistakenly conflated with job training, and we will limit our learning throughout life.

At points throughout the semester, frustrated by the frenetic pace of the class, which in turn is dictated by powers beyond the control of individual professors–because all math classes have to align to assure transferability, and if they don’t then the colleges that mess with course content stand to lose students, funding, and revenue–I declared that the community college or university is the last place a person should go for an education. Now, having gotten through the class intact, I see that this is a harsh judgment, but there is nonetheless some truth in it. Our institutions of higher learning have become, as I said above, factories, and if we stop the production line or try to slow it down, we risk gumming up the whole process. And we all know what happens when that occurs:

I’ve often told my students that education is wasted on the young. But we can remedy this if we want to. The tragedy is not that so few of us actually go back to complete our education when we finally have the time and resources to do so, but that we limit the amount of learning all students can achieve, even in the place that is supposedly the most conducive to learning: the university. I hope in the years to come we begin to see the limits of higher education as we’ve fashioned it, and remediate these ill effects.

As for me, I’m celebrating my success, such as it is, and picking up the threads of my life. More adventures in math to come next fall, as I proceed to Trignometry.

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