Teacher of Interest: Episode 1

I’m a fan of Person of Interest, a TV series about a software genius and an ex-CIA agent who work together, in secret, to prevent violent crimes before they can happen. In a recent episode Mr. Finch goes undercover as a substitute teacher to protect a high school student.

There are ≥ 3 clips of interest to (math) teachers. The first:

First off, I am well aware that this is fiction. The teacher receiving a last-minute opportunity to attend an all expenses paid teaching seminar in Maui is a dead giveaway. Still, part of this depiction of mathematics teaching may painfully ring true.

“Math is not punishment,” Mr. Finch/Swift says when a student explains that the classroom teacher has left busywork. Often, tedious problems are used as classroom management. Students are assigned one to fifty-nine odd only because there are forty-five minutes left in a seventy-seven minute period. I’ve been an eyewitness to teachers using math as punishment. They play good cop/bad cop (“You guys have worked hard today, so no homework”/”Get to work, or I’ll assign the evens”). I, too, may have been guilty of this. The message is undeniable: math is unpleasant. Behave, or do math.

Mr. Finch/Swift is surprised and disappointed to learn that he has been left to teach addition. “That can’t be right.” It isn’t right. But it isn’t uncommon. He feels this is below his students. He wants to elevate the problem from arithmetic to mathematics: “Who’d like to take a crack at working out Gauss’ equation?” Finch/Swift provides a hint: 100(100 + 1). Like most math teachers, he means to be helpful. However, by trying to be helpful, he may have scaffolded problem-solving out of the problem for his students. At least he would have, if more than one of them were actually listening to him. The solution is 100(100 + 1)/2. Dividing by two. That is all that is left for his students to figure out. The rest is ‘rithmetic.

A sneak peek at Episodes 2 & 3: A Statistically Improbable Score & What It’s Good For.

2 Replies to “Teacher of Interest: Episode 1”

  1. I wonder why TV shows make classes so short. If the substitute teacher is JUST introducing himself, shouldn’t the lesson last a bit longer? Unless of course, he was super late to it, in which case, why is he bothering to read the lesson plan? If I only have 2 minutes in a class, I certainly wouldn’t worry much about making sure I did anything but attempt to inspire students to study something interesting for themselves later.

    I have seen tedious math problems used as punishment. “If you aren’t quiet, you will get 10 more questions for homework!” This kind of use of calculations certainly sends the wrong message to students!

  2. Funny, Marc said the same thing re: the short class. I missed that completely. Maybe because this is standard practice on TV, as commonplace as having phone numbers beginning with 555.

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