Cognitive strength and conditioning.

by Steve Wyckoff on November 8, 2010

I recently had a conversation with the teacher who read my blog post on high school math. I was told that I’d missed the most important aspect regarding students learning math in high school. The most important aspect, I was told, is that students need to learn algebra and other higher math because it trains them, and their minds, in a certain way of thinking and performing.

I’ve heard this argument many times, and in fact read an article some time ago that compared it to athletes lifting weights. The article argued that very few athletes participate in competitive weightlifting, yet they all lift weights to prepare for their particular competition.

That made some sense to me but I don’t think they took the analogy far enough. I believe that cognitive strength and conditioning is necessary for our students. I just don’t believe that the courses we have traditionally taught in schools are the only way to achieve cognitive strength and conditioning.

I think that that defense is a rationalization to support continuing what we’ve always done. I would agree that algebra and other higher math courses are appropriate for some kids, but as in athletics, the method of strength and conditioning used by an individual depends on their ultimate goal.

Not all athletes lift weights and condition in the same way. In fact, athletes in the same sport approach strength and conditioning differently. I think we should have that same flexibility in our schools.

Every time I talk to teachers and other educators about school change they agree that schools need to change. However, whenever we start to get to the details we can never reach agreement what should be changed. No matter what area of the current educational system I bring up there’s a rationale for keeping it as it is.

The cognitive strength and conditioning argument is just another rationalization to avoid real school change. – Steve Wyckoff

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Tony November 8, 2010 at 8:30 am

The major problem with this excuse for not changing is that the brain is not a muscle that strengthens with exercise. Sadly, the reasoning used here just shows how ignorant most teachers are about the brain and how we learn. There is research on this if anyone would be interested in checking it out.

echurch November 8, 2010 at 11:48 am

If the teacher’s comments are valid “it trains them, and their minds, in a certain way of thinking and performing” then that is what Wiggins and McTighe in Schooling by Design would call a framework element that transcends individual content areas. As a framework element, let’s call what the teacher described, critical thinking, the math curriculum would require specific reference to critical thinking in the algebra and higher math courses syllabi, units, etc. The curriculum would need to include specific learning and assessment strategies at each math level. Critical learning would also need to be assessed at each level with a longitudinal rubric. Just teaching algebra with no concept or link to framework elements generally provides non-transferable learning that is not engaging to the students. While I do not advocate not teaching algebra or advanced math, the teacher’s argument does not support their position.

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