It’s NCAA basketball tournament time, so let’s just blow the whistle and tip this column off.
Quick side note: We’ll be talking about revolutionary math education, but let the kids get dribbling first. Get those sneakers squeaking on the wood floor.
A few missed shots bang off the rim, but then a beautiful one sails its elegant arc and — swish.
OK. Time out. We’re ready.
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Gather around our KU coaches. Not those coaches, but Steven Obenhaus and Carrie La Voy, math specialists serving the KU Center for STEM Learning.
Obenhaus wants to know: What is the sharpest angle a basketball can travel entering the rim and still hit nothing but net?
In a math class, the teacher posing this question would have a daunting backlog of skills and procedures pressing to be taught and drilled.
But if you really want kids to enjoy this, just let them go to work, Obenhaus says. Let them talk. Let the class get noisy and busy.
What do you need to know? It’s so easy to look things up now. The size of the rim. The size of the basketball.
But that’s circumference. Some will figure out they need diameter. Students start teaching each other.
Draw scale models. Plot paths. Now we’re talking triangles. Trigonometry.
At that point, Obenhaus says, the teacher might help with some trig relationships — and, man, you have their attention.
“Kids are thinking, ‘I need to learn more math. I’ve got a problem I need to solve,’” Obenhaus says.
This is the inquiry-fueled approach to instruction that the master teachers were demonstrating to Kansas City area math teachers at a recent weekend workshop with the STEM center.
It’s not an easy leap, La Voy says.
“I’ll admit I was skeptical at first,” she said. “What if it takes too much time? What if they don’t ever get the concepts? At what point do I just tell them the procedures?”
But you soon discover “the power and excitement” of teaching this way, she said.
You still need to master procedures. Still need to practice. Still need to test. But the “lather-rinse-repeat” mundanity of teach and drill is gone, Obenhaus said.
Kids want to get the answer. They want the triumph of figuring out that basketball shot’s angle. This is good for America.
So what’s the answer, Professor Obenhaus?
“I’ll let you figure that out.”