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.