Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Writers Make Poor Teachers

Before you make a nasty comment below, let me clarify: I don't mean writers teaching about writing. I mean writers in a profession as a teacher, and more specifically a secondary school teacher. I also refer primarily to the marking (aka grading) aspect of the job, as opposed to actual delivery of curriculum. After all, some writers may be very good at preparing and delivering a lecture about writing... but what about then taking in 60 samples of writing from their audience and giving them feedback?

You can't (necessarily) just slap a percent grade on something these days either. Let me briefly go more into that aspect of the job, for the benefit of my writing friends who aren't teachers. You see, things have changed since you were in high school.

Pictured: Not a typical class.

Math has traditionally been known as a subject where you got a point for the answer, and then more points for showing your work. At the end of a test, points are totaled, giving you a mark like 40/50, so 80%. But lately (within the last ten years) there has been a shift to more level based marking. The idea being that if someone gets a mark like 23/50, they've probably demonstrated more than 46% of the material - maybe just continually made the same error, or mastered one of the three expectations but done very badly on the other two, and for that matter how do we quantify "you should learn 4% more" anyway? This person should pass.

Points are gone. Outcome based grading is here.

Some say this is about increasing the pass rate. Others counter that levels and outcomes provide more effective feedback. Besides, it applies the other way - if someone gets a mark like 49/50, do they really understand? Can they apply the knowledge to similar situations, or are they just regurgitating things from memory? How are they "lacking 2%" of the content anyway?

Now, I agree with the shift. I'm marking on levels. It also surprises me how good I am at it, because I'm effectively being asked to mark mathematics as if it were an english essay. (Not really what I signed up for, but a few years with it has helped.) So what's the problem?


Writing comments no one will
 see is also counterproductive
I blame the writer in me for that. Here's why. Recognize I have to make two passes through each test/exam. One to actually correct the math, then a second time to get an overview of where the mistakes are, how well the expectations were demonstrated, et cetera. So where I used to just add up points (which takes less than a minute), I'm now taking two or three minutes to make an assessment. Meaning what used to take less than half an hour NOW TAKES 90 MINUTES. Why so long?

Because I have to justify to myself whether this is actually a pass or a fail. Whether this is provincial standard, or just below. Do the student's mathematical justifications make sense? To what degree are errors in notation detracting from the overall understanding and presentation? What's the continuity like from this one section to the next? Are there any major plot holes? Am I satisfied with the end result, or should it be redone?

The observant may notice me slipping into writing mode there. Now, I'm not saying that I literally look at a math test like a story with rising action, a climax and denouement. (Though now that I mention it... no, no, not going to do metaphors!) What I am saying here is that there's some part of my brain that just HAS to make sense of what I'm seeing before I can finally throw down the 2+ (~68%) as opposed to 3- (~72%).

Which even I can acknowledge is ridiculous.

A colleague of mine did a check, changing level 2's to 2+'s to see if overall averages changed. They didn't. Another colleague blew through a set of tasks in an hour. That's a task which I wager I would have taken me three times as long to get through. Even I grant that 90% of the time, my first instinct is exactly the same as what goes on the page three minutes later. And yet I simply CANNOT turn off the part of my brain saying "maybe you've missed something; maybe it's important".

Moreover, I'm not sure I SHOULD turn that off.

Hey, I just met you. But with my numbers, yes, I'm crazy.

I write my own web series (the personification of math), for which I do a lot of self-editing. I carefully integrate mathematics into my characters too (pun intended - I include wordplay). I also roleplay, and have had such an eye for continuity that I ended up being the scribe of the gaming group I was with for several years. I've done beta reading of stories for friends (when I find time), and have picked up on things that other readers have missed. Plus I've taken the position of secretary for at least four different committees over the years.

In short, what I'm saying is, I pay attention to detail. And I'm GOOD at it. Aren't most writers?

So... if I start to just look at a test and go "level 2"... it feels like I'm losing a part of myself. As if I've taken the first step towards general indifference, towards accepting that "a glance is good enough". A glance is NEVER good enough when you're writing, certainly not if you want to get published! Even on the internet, if you see a couple spelling mistakes within the first paragraph of a story, do you really keep reading? (I suppose it might depend on to what degree other factors mitigate the problems with notation, so the person could still pass if... wait, no, stop!)

So, you might respond, simply separate your day job from your writing. Yes, I wish it were that easy; they're both a part of me. Moreover, of late, both involve large chunks of mathematics.

Thing is, because of my inability to glance, I just worked eight straight 9 hour days, including through the weekend. (I blogged about exam timelines earlier.) THIS IS NOT SUSTAINABLE. BUT I CAN'T STOP MYSELF. Not without compromising a part of who I am. (Or can I? Please, if you see something obvious that I'm missing, comment!)

In conclusion, let me grant the possibility that writers may NOT make poor teachers. It could be that editors make poor teachers... or that I make for a poor teacher (at least when it comes to evaluation)... or that anyone would be a poor teacher in this sort of situation. I don't know enough to judge. Only enough to write about it.

More about my writing: Creativity Page
More about my teaching: Week as Math Educator
My mathematical web series: Taylor's Polynomials


  1. The issue is that as you are 'writing', you are continually revising.

    As a writer, yes, it is important to re-visit and revise, and pay attention to the details. But as a writer, it is also important to keep an eye on the overall structure, to trust your instincts, and to walk away from your obsessions every now and again to go outside and simply breathe. (Which, granted, is somewhat less palatable in winter.)

    It's a strange dichotomy writers have to have. To keep questioning, yes, but also to trust yourself.

  2. I know that I, if I were a student today, would be weirded out by a Math exam being marked in a manner more appropriate for an English or History exam. In the latter two classes, you'd just have to look to see if the important points are there and if the student can back up arguments over conclusions. In Math, though, the answer is the answer. There's no, "Well, x=3 except if the flowers bloom."

    At the same time, could going through the way the problems were solved help? It sounds like that's the approach you're taking. And, well, one wrong step can cascade in a math question, so subsequent steps, if they're the right ones even with the wrong data can still be right. (Which, I suspect, is what you're doing anyway.)

    Would putting down a "gut feeling" mark in pencil on a once-through work, then going back to verify the feeling be any faster or just adding to the work?

  3. Sonal - That's an interesting point. I probably do need to trust myself more. Part of the reason I'm not cut out for Novel Writing Months is I keep going back over the stuff I've written, to tweak or to mine for loose threads.
    Scott - The whole point of math these days is the answer is irrelevant. The computer can tell you the answer. As you indicate, WHY is it the answer is what's so important (so that we know when the computer's spouting nonsense). It's a good idea, the initial mark - it might add to the work initially, but give me the 'trust' issue that would pay later dividends.
    Food for thought at least, thanks both.

    1. So, I think I understand what you're looking for. It's the sheer amount of time needed to get the work done, followed by the, "Does this student understand even if the answer is wrong and he/she got lost along the way?" marking. The only thing I can think of is that, with time, it'll get faster because you'll trust your judgment more. But, the initial mark followed by a sanity check pass for adjustments may help there.

  4. Hi, Gregory,

    Your post definitely caught my eye as I am a writer and a mathematician. I'm glad you clarified it!

    As a fellow mathematics educator I thought you might be able to help in spreading the word about an educational TV show for preteens about math that we're putting together. "The Number Hunter" is a cross between Bill Nye The Science Guy and The Crocodile Hunter -- bringing math to children in an innovative, adventurous way. I’d really appreciate your help in getting the word out about the project.


    I studied math education at Jacksonville University and the University of Florida. It became clear to me during my studies why we’re failing at teaching kids math. We're teaching it all wrong! Bill Nye taught kids that science is FUN. He showed them the EXPLOSIONS first and then the kids went to school to learn WHY things exploded. Kids learn about dinosaurs and amoeba and weird ocean life to make them go “wow”. But what about math? You probably remember the dreaded worksheets. Ugh.

    I’m sure you know math is much more exciting than people think. Fractal Geometry was used to create “Star Wars” backdrops, binary code was invented in Africa, The Great Pyramids and The Mona Lisa, wouldn’t exist without geometry.
    Our concept is to create an exciting, web-based TV show that’s both fun and educational.

    If you could consider posting about the project on your blog, I’d very much appreciate it. Also, if you'd be interested in link exchanging (either on The Number Hunter site, which is in development, or on StatisticsHowTo.com which is a well-established site with 300,000 page views a month) please shoot me an email. We're also always looking for input and ideas from other math educators!

    Thanks in advance for your help,


    1. In the back of my mind there's the follow-up, "Writers Make Good Teachers", but it hasn't coalesced yet. As far as spreading the word, first I mulled it over, then I got busy with other things, though I finally did say something about it today. Notice the starter deadline is tomorrow, so perhaps better late than never.