Emotionality Versus Math and Science… An Epic Classroom Battle…

Posted: August 6, 2012 in All Roles, For Educators, For Parents and Guardians, My Thoughts...
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When you’re at your most emotional… when you’re feeling profound sadness, pre-occupation with uncertainty or pure and simple blind rage… how would you respond if someone told you to be more logical? It might not go over so well would it? You might get angry, you might tell the person directing you to put aside your feelings to buzz off (or some other four letter word)… or you might just shut them out and ignore their direction.

So why are we surprised when our exceedingly emotionally driven inner-city teenagers, or any teenagers for that matter, are failing at math and the sciences? Why are we so confused by our students’s rejection of linear and logical thinking?  And if our goal is in fact to facilitate ownership of information and critical thinking skills, why are we ignoring or looking away from the likely psycho-social obstacles inhibiting learning?

But before you think I’m going to suggest babying our emotionally needy students, keep reading… because I’m suggesting the exact opposite. I’m suggesting we re-focus on preparing them and teaching them how to NOT use their feelings as excuses.

While experts in education continue their obsession with data collection and analysis, many of our students continue to grow more and more disengaged from our math and science content areas. Teachers all across the country, and not just in our city schools, seem to be flailing in quicksand when it comes to getting their kids to absorb their math and science curriculum.

As professional development workshops continue to target teacher inclusion of technology, “creativity” and “interactivity” in lesson planning, I feel compelled to speak from an entirely different paradigm. Assuming there is nothing physiologically or neurologically different with todays youth from youth of the past, there must be some other explanation as to why our collective math and science proficiency continues to decline. And we can choose to keep slapping different coats of paint on the same old tools… or we can be a little more creative and think differently about a problem we’re getting further from resolving.

As a counselor, my lens obviously draws my attention to the emotional, developmental or environmental factors possibly causing student defiance towards math and science instruction… and while I’m no mathematician, biologist, physicist or chemist, it seems pretty evident that these content areas require more linear and logical processing than other content areas.

For a growing population of urban youth, their environments and circumstances are stirring a sense of entitlement. Something along the lines of “my life and my neighborhood are rough… and as such, the world owes me, my emotions are justified, and therefore, my actions, no matter what they are, are also justified”. Because of the stresses and perceived threats they’re living with every day, many children are exhibiting an emotionality and volatility that conveys “the right” to do and say whatever it is that their mood dictates… and this sense of emotional entitlement is over-powering the calm, logical state of mind that math and the sciences require to stay on track. And this “survive the moment” mentality is preventing them from seeing any future… and if a kid isn’t thinking about their future, or of goals, then the need to learn boring, but valuable lessons today becomes almost non-existant.

And consequently, given the emotionality and entitlement so many teenagers and younger students are bringing into their classrooms, many more educators are being forced to spend more time managing their classroom climates than instructing and checking for understanding… which simply positions teachers to fail. As administrations and funding sources continue to look more and more at data which inevitably minimizes context and the true texture of a learners mind, teachers are more and more finding themselves frantically trying to get through material and adhering to their pacing charts… rather than taking their time to ensure knowledge acquisition. Essentially, educators are being compelled to honor the needs of the decision makers more than the needs of the students.

Basically, it’s the perfect storm right now for educators, and especially for those charged with the responsibility of teaching content areas that allow less for abstract and tangential thinking. Math and science are slowly becoming stigmatized to many students as “unnecessary”, and not because they necessarily believe they’re unnecessary subjects.  They’re getting stigmatized because the kind of thinking math and science require is in such conflict with the emotional mind, that it’s just easier to write the content off as useless than it is to figure out how to put their personal needs and feelings aside enough to absorb the lessons.

So rather than trying to convince a child, or a classroom of students that math and science are fun… and rather than running yourselves ragged trying to prove just how necessary and important the material is… perhaps an educators best strategy (depending on the age of the students) would be the most transparent one. Maybe the bells and whistles promoted in professional development workshops need to give way to an approach that honors the developmental needs of these certain kinds of students who are fundamentally rejecting more technical content areas.

Maybe instructors of math and science need to 1) acknowledge and validate the students disinterest and/or difficulty with the subject (instead of trying to sell something that simply won’t be bought), 2) improve classroom management abilities to create and maintain the low-energy climate required to calm emotionality and improve focus and 3) emphasize over and over again, that regardless of a students feelings about a subject (or even a teacher), they can in fact learn it, and learn it well.

Many students, and an increasing number of educators are under the false impression that enjoyment and “happiness” are required for learning… and this perception is doing nothing but holding instructors hostage. Instead, let’s all remain mindful that we’re educators, not entertainers, and that boredom or disinterest or personal feelings do not need to be catered to in classrooms (that’s more for the counselors in 1 to 1 or group sessions)… and that there are in fact ways to teach subjects that students aren’t good at or don’t like without having to put on a clown suit or amp up the special effects.

Be honest. Be direct. Be deliberate. Validate your students perceptions and emotionality… and then instruct them with the foundational understanding that school will always be about preparing young people to complete tasks, overcome obstacles, answer to authority and do jobs… irregardless of personal feelings or circumstance. Yes, easier said than done… especially by a counselor… but maybe a truth nonetheless.


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