Teaching Math and the Third Metric

I teach high school math, which by most accounts is a rather intellectual subject. However, in my latest three-week block teaching conic sections (the curves formed when one slices a cone with a plane) I assigned my students a project where the primary criterion was to create something that brought them joy. Yes, the primary criterion was joy! It did not take them long to come up with projects involving art, air soft guns, cooking and even the space-time continuum.

I think an open-ended project that focuses on joy is important for many reasons. First it helps the students engage in their own learning. I find much of what is asked of high school students these days feels to them like hoop jumping for a grade. Learning is an inherently satisfying activity, and when the students can bring their own interests and unique perspective to learning they are more engaged and joyful.

Second, I teach a diverse group of students, both in ability and interest wise, but enjoyment is something they all share; it is the common denominator in the classroom -- they all can participate equally. Third, I want them to practice being creative and take risks in their thinking and doing. I want to encourage them to connect dots that no one has connected before and think of the world in a new way -- in their own way.

Even after more than 30 years of teaching, I hear questions from my students about math that I have never thought about, making the class more alive and engaging for everyone. With this assignment, I have had students take on explorations where there were no conics to be found (fire spinning and the earth illumination map) and we celebrated those explorations. I do not want my students to play it safe just to "get a good grade" but daring to ask outrageous questions to see what they can find out.

I realize that I am blessed with the freedom to do this as I teach in a Waldorf school, and I am grateful for its philosophy designed to develop independent and creative thinkers. If you don't know much about Waldorf Education, you're not alone. Even though Waldorf schools have been in existence for almost 100 years and are found in almost 100 countries around the world, until recently they were not well known.

A 2011 New York Times front-page story sparked a cascade of global attention looking at why Silicon Valley's top technology executives were sending their children to a school without computers. The new documentary film, Preparing for Life picks up where that story left off -- talking with Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, Stanford researchers, investment bankers and parents who run some of the largest hi-tech companies in the world and alumni who now work in high-tech. Viewers get an unprecedented look at Waldorf education from the inside out.

You can watch the 17-minute film here.

Last month while watching the Wisdom 2.0 conference, I was especially inspired by Arianna Huffington's talk about the third metric. The third metric adds another dimension to the traditional definitions of success -- money and power. Money and power are like two legs on a three-legged stool. To truly thrive, we need a third leg -- a metric for defining success that encompasses our well-being, our ability to draw in our intuition and inner wisdom, our sense of wonder and our capacity for compassion and giving.

In her talk, Arianna emphasized the role women must play in developing the third metric; I believe that teachers need to embody that role as well as we plant the seeds of how students themselves will define success. In the classroom, we can value joy and well being in addition to academic performance, practicing being present so that we don't miss the moment when true engagement and learning occur. Her talk both inspired me and reminded me of what I strive for as a teacher: preparing the students for a life of well-being, wisdom, wonder and giving.