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Morning Sun
  • OKIE IN EXILE: The Karate Kid and the Art of Teaching

  • Some of you might be old enough to remember the movie the Karate Kid.  I don’t mean the most recent one or any of the sequels, but the original one way back in the day.  It starred the guy who played Al on Happy Days. (Has it occurred to anyone else of my generation that it was as ridiculous to be nostalgic about the 50s in the 70s as it is to be about the 90s now?)

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  • Some of you might be old enough to remember the movie the Karate Kid.  I don’t mean the most recent one or any of the sequels, but the original one way back in the day.  It starred the guy who played Al on Happy Days. (Has it occurred to anyone else of my generation that it was as ridiculous to be nostalgic about the 50s in the 70s as it is to be about the 90s now?)
    The only thing I remember about that movie--besides Al--is the sequence where the Kid is bugging Al to teach him karate and he tells him first to sand, then to paint, then to do whatever, and to do them in a particular way.  When the Kid formally starts his first lesson, he’s got all of his moves in place already because he was learning them while doing his chores.
    It is just a silly old movie, right?  
    Maybe.  But beyond the stereotypes, beyond the sentimentality, beyond Hollywood squeezing the last drop out of anything popular, there is a point: We don’t always know what we are really learning.
    I am about to get a little technical. You don’t have to understand the details though so bear with me.  There is a math class called Matrix Algebra.  In that class, there is a technique called row reduction.  This is incredibly--in-stinking-credibly--tedious. And it is awkward to do with two by two matrices; it is painful to do with three by three matrices; four by four matrices are sadistic.  But, with apologies to Jesse Jackson, five by five, you won’t survive.
    Back in the day, when I was watching Happy Days and that other good stuff, I did a few five by five. You wouldn’t make the folks at gitmo do a five by five matrix even if you were a republican, but my Matrix Algebra teacher, made us do a five by five. Okay, maybe once.  Well, I could get technical and justify it by other reasons, but there is one fact:  To do it, you had to learn be careful, to take your time, and to stick to it.  You can learn the technical stuff with three by threes, but a five by five is life altering.
    I was talking to a professor of Information Systems about our mutual experiences of learning how to program.  One learns computer languages, of course, but one learns to problem solve and to organize.  You can get those other places of course, but a computer checks your work and will tell you immediately that it isn’t right.  There is a semi-colon that is out of place.  You meant to type an i, but typed a j instead.
    It doesn’t know you’re pretty. It doesn’t know you have a boyish grin.  It didn’t go to school with your parents. It doesn’t know anything, but it won’t work if you don’t program it right.
    Page 2 of 2 - I look back up at that and it’s all good, but it raises a question. (Not the same as “begging a question” which is something entirely different.  Don’t use the phrase.) Aren’t those other skills good too?  Don’t pretty people who know how to manipulate others run the world? Yes, they do.  You can learn those skills in all of your other classes.
    In designing any class, the first step, is to ask what the students are supposed to learn.  People work awfully hard on this.  They create standards; they create student-learning-outcomes; they design value rubrics.  It’s all good. We don’t need to get rid of any of that.
    But some of what we teach--our students learn--is so subtle you can’t measure it by filling in ovals; you can’t measure it with an essay.  Some of the most important things learned have to be allowed years to grow, like a mustard seed or an acorn; choose one of these metaphors or pick your own.
    Teaching--good teaching--is an art and a science and a calling. And there are some things that you learn without knowing that you are learning them.  You don’t know that you have until someone comes at you and you raise your arm to fend off a blow because you’ve been sanding or can wade through some tedious work because you’ve row-reduced five by five matrices.
    Bobby Winters, a native of Harden City, Oklahoma, is Assistant Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and Professor of Mathematics at Pittsburg State University. He blogs at redneckmath.blogspot.com and okieinexile.blogspot.com. You may contact him at okieinexile@gmail.com.
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