Stories and courses

What is a course? Is it a collection of chapters? Is it a collection of topics?

I hope it’s neither — especially not that collection of chapters! A course should always tell a story. It should have a unifying purpose. Think about what I said in my previous post: a test should tell a story. The same applies to the entire course. The course should have a beginning, a middle, and an end, with characters in a setting, where one or more conflicts occur and are resolved, to quote myself. In other words, it should have a plot.

I always make this point when I talk to my students’ parents at Back-to-School Night. It’s hard to do that in Algebra II, which really is pretty much a collection of topics, unless you want to get either very abstract (relations and other functions) or very mundane (a continuation of Algebra I). It’s much more straightforward in geometry or precalculus. I was reminded of all this the other day when reading Ed Levine’s memoir, Serious Eater, the subject of a forthcoming blog post of mine. The whole book revolves around a series of stories, as does Levine’s podcast, Special Sauce. Neither the book nor the podcast would work if you viewed it as a collection of topics. Likewise Mary Norris’s memoir, Greek to Me, which I reviewed a little while ago. Probably a memoir can’t be successful unless it tells a story, but for some reason lots of people think a math course can be. The most powerful presentations in the recent debate among Democratic presidential candidates came from those who were telling a story. If it works for them, it should work for math teachers.


Categories: Teaching & Learning