November 24, 2013

For years now, I have been proud that I was able to teach Robert changing units of different measures. Aas soon as Robert learned multiplication, we started to change weeks into days, and years into months. Later we kept changing hours into minutes, pounds or cups into ounces, and gallons into quarts, yards into feet or inches..

I was proud when Robert confronted with the problem: “How many days in three weeks and 4 days?” could immediately respond by writing, “3×7 +4=25.”

I kept being even more proud when he could add and subtract hours and minutes, inches and feet, pounds and ounces. Today, I reassessed his skills and…my ability to teach.

On a way to his horseback lesson, Robert kept asking about his sister, “Amanda, Amanda, Amanda.” He knows, she is coming home for holidays but, nonetheless, he wants his expectation to be constantly reaffirmed.

I responded, “She is coming in three weeks and five days. How many days is that?”

Robert did not know.

“How many days in three weeks?”

“Seven.”

“No, one week has seven days. How many days in three weeks?”

Robert was lost.

I asked him to repeat, “One week has 7 days.”

After he did, I asked him to repeat after me, “Three weeks have…..”

He repeated and finished the sentence, “Three weeks have 21 days.”

Of course, it took a little longer than the sentences above would indicate. As we drove, we practiced changing whole weeks into days. On the way home, I returned to mixing weeks and days,”Three weeks and two days, Two weeks and three days, (…).

I did not ask myself why Robert knew how to solve the ACADEMIC (?) problem of changing 3 weeks and 5 days into days, but was unable to solve REAL LIFE problem of counting how many days to his sister flight home. I knew, that those are different skills for Robert. One is presented in writing and can be solved by writing arithmetic expression according to a simple algorithm. Another problem is presented orally and has to be solved by doing two operations without the support of a pencil and a sheet of paper.

One problem was practiced many times in conjunction with similar mathematical operations. The other one intruded on our car trip, coming almost from nowhere and took Robert by surprise.

I knew the difference between the two sets of mind needed to solve that same problem problem in two environments. I could anticipate issues that might arise when reading is replaced with listening and writing with processing operation mentally, sitting at the desk in learning mood versus being somewhere else attending to varied stimuli. I knew all of that, but not exactly. I made mistake of believing that teaching such functional skills in academic format would automatically lead to their errorless applications in real life situations.

But for Robert and many young people like him, skills can became functional only if they are practiced in real life situations. For Robert, applying the skill is the skill, he has to be taught. And I have not taught him that . Not yet.