The myth of being required to teach yourself

There’s an unfortunate myth that is believed by many Weston students and their parents.

Like all myths, it isn’t true.

Like most myths, it does contain a grain of truth.

The myth goes something like this: “In order to succeed in an honors math course at Weston High School (especially Honors Geometry), you have to teach yourself. You also have to hire a tutor.” Let’s examine the source of these ideas as well as the reality behind them. We’ll explore the “grain of truth” as we debunk the major claim.

What is true is that honors math courses at Weston are difficult. They have to be. Lowering standards would not be in anyone’s interest, including your own (even if this weren’t an age of international competition and political pressure for accountability, lowering the standards wouldn’t serve you well). The Honors Geometry course is always something of a shock treatment for entering high-school students who want to be prepared for the rigors of subsequent honors math courses. You look at your initial grades (typically much lower than you are accustomed to), and you panic, thinking that you need a tutor. In fact, student surveys in the middle of each year show that fewer than 20% of successful students in this course actually see a tutor, but those who do will spread the word. One-on-one attention from anyone, whether it be a tutor or a teacher or a knowledgeable parent, can of course improve your performance if you are otherwise in a group with 25 classmates, but it’s statistically untrue that a tutor is necessary: not all successful honors students have one…not even a majority of such students…not even a quarter of such students. You don’t need a tutor in order to succeed.

So what about this “students have to teach themselves” myth? We know where this idea comes from: it comes from learning by reading, and learning by doing. If you’re an honors math student, we often ask you to learn something from reading a chapter in the textbook, just as English and History teachers ask you to learn something through your reading. It’s only in math that this idea somehow seems shocking. It shouldn’t be! No one in the future is going to spoon-feed you by telling you everything you need to know — often you have to go out and read it! If that is labeled “teaching yourself,” then so be it. Even more often, we ask you to learn something by doing problems — just as you learn other subjects by doing research, synthesizing your thoughts, and writing about them. Sometimes you need to wander around in the forest, feeling lost. Eventually your teacher helps you find your way out, and in the end you’ve learned much more from the experience than you would have learned if your teacher had merely given you a map and shown you the route ahead of time. You benefit much more from learning how to learn than from learning specific facts. You’re not going to be spoon-fed in an honors course, and you’ll be better off for it in the long run.

So, the bottom line is that you don’t really have to “teach yourself”: your teachers will help you learn through a wide variety of modes, including reading, problem-solving, Internet research, collaborating with your classmates, extra help, and…yes…even the occasional lecture.

Categories: Teaching & Learning, Weston