Saturday, August 30, 2003

A smidge more about "The Rules"

Most people who have taken math classes have been told, "show your work." Math teachers insist on this because math is not simply about getting the answer right (though that is obviously its final objective) but also about the process of arriving at that answer. Excepting only the people with unusual brains, most of us must learn a method for arriving at the correct answer.

When I was in 8th grade, I spent the first quarter and half of the second completely and utterly mystified by algebra in general and the quadratic equation in particular. I fumbled my way along, getting just enough of the pieces of it right to maintain a bit-better-than-passing average, but I really had no idea why problem 1 on the test might earn me 8 points out of 10, but problem 2 only 3 out of 10. My teacher, Ms. Krause, spent a lot of extra time tutoring me, working problems with me without ever once telling me to look in the back of the book to see if I had arrived at the correct solutions. Every time I seemed to get a little closer to clarity, she would focus in more tightly on the concepts and process. Eventually, my second quarter progress report went home, with a note that "the light went on," or words to that effect. Once I understood *how* to work an equation, we went back to focusing on the answer as much as the process.

So it is with my attitude about "The Rules" that I blogged on a while ago. My frustration in The Case of the Lapsed Catholic Communicant (sounds like a Fr. Dowling mystery, doesn't it?) is not about what is best, but what is possible. It does a person no good to be given a right answer (something my algebra teacher pointedly avoided doing) when the recipient is incapable of understanding it, or repeating arrival at it. She may have been in the midst of a revelation about how Communion and grace function, but by focusing on getting to the solution correctly, people may be obstructing her learning. It is absolutely essential that at some point, she come to understand not only the pieces of the process, but the whole process, and thus the solution. But to interfere, to insist that she do the problem the right way and come to the right solution, while denying her the ability to understand both parts, is not to serve her or aid her salvation at all.


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