Imitation without Understanding

A view of what might be the biggest issue in (math) education.

Okay, so maybe I’m overselling this, but I’d like to argue that there’s a big disconnect between what we think is happening and what is really happening, and we’ve bought into a scheme where we can fool ourselves (the education community) into believing that everything is ‘okay’.

The short version is the title: we think we are teaching understanding but instead are testing and, thus reinforcing, imitation. And it is even worse in that the imitation is often done without understanding.

A story: We teach a first-year general education math course (for non-STEM students) and a common feature is discussing the rational and irrational numbers. In this, the big result is that \sqrt{2} is irrational. In most sections, this is done in class, then tested on a quiz and then likely shows up on an exam and maybe even the final. The proof isn’t trivial, but is not so complicated that a student can’t learn to reproduce it. With all the ‘coverage’, many of the students can successfully write this proof, and we can ‘claim’ that they understand. However, in cases where we push this, for example by asking them to show \sqrt{3} is irrational, or even better (or worse) that \sqrt{4} is irrational, we often find that they have very little understanding, and have only been successful by copying or imitating the correct proof for \sqrt{2}.

So why does this happen? I think all parties have contributed, and will speculate as to how each comes about:

For students: this has been going on for them since kindergarten. If they made the grades, etc. to get into college, they have mastered this system. If a teacher gives a practice test, they know to do it, memorize it, and expect to be asked to reproduce the same sort of thing on the test. I suspect that some aspects of math anxiety are due to the honest fear that just being able to reproduce given results isn’t enough and eventually the student will be ‘caught’.

For teachers: it’s  both what they’ve experienced as students, and most likely what they’ve unintentionally found to be most efficient and effective in their teaching. Even for the good teachers who are trying to generate understanding, students will learn the right language and use it to appear to understand, but may only be imitating what they’ve heard.  As the teacher wants to hear that the students are understanding, they assume that the student does understand and doesn’t push further to see what’s really going on.

For both together: in my most cynical view, there’s an agreement that the teacher will count imitation as understanding and the student will pretend that they understand. The student avoids the challenge of gaining true understanding or the embarrassment of not understanding, while the teacher avoids the challenge of supporting true understanding or the embarrassment of seeing many/most student not actually gain understanding.

(When I first starting writing this almost a year ago, I was writing primarily out of frustration. Now, I have hope that it is possible to honestly address true understanding and that, in the right context, students can and will step up to the challenge)

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