Newsletter #8     Marion Walter

I tell my students, when they want to know just why I am so anxious for them to translate 473 into Babylonian numerals, that the only way to get any perspective on what you're used to is to back off from it. This week-end I did that for myself with a splendid 45 hour round trip to Eugene, Oregon. I went with Swapna Mukhopadhyay, a colleague from the College of Education, to visit Marion Walter, who is in the Mathematics Department at the University of Oregon and specializes in teaching future teachers. And a highly educational expedition it was. The first revelation came right off the bat in the sheer envy in Marion's expression as we jointly handed her the paper we jointly wrote about a pair of courses we just jointly taught. It seems that Oregon's College of Education espouses the theory of Direct Instruction (to which we of the opposite persuasion give the ever-so-slightly loaded title of "Drill and Kill".) There has been no bloodshed, but consequences are many, including the fact that over the past fifteen years, Marion has given workshops for more teachers in (for instance) Denmark than she has in Oregon. I also renewed my appreciation for the fact that Steve Monk and Ramesh Gangolli are interested enough in Math 170 (our Math for Elementary School Teachers) to share the teaching of it with me. My impression (thought NOT a certainty) is that that is a missing element for Marion.In addition, I gained an appreciation for our photocopy machine, but that's another story.

Marion knew George Polya well, and was an early advocate for emphasis on problem-solving in the teaching of mathematics. That aspect has now become widely accepted (heavily touted in the NCTM Standards, for example), but Marion has taken it one step further and become a specialist in problem-posing. It is an art which any parent will agree comes naturally to small children (I can still hear my three-year-old interrupting himself in the middle of question number 37 of a sequence with "Oh wait--here's a good one!") Somewhere along the line, though, it tends to disappear. It's probably partially parents (I can't actually remember answering the previous 36...) and certainly largely schooling ("When I want to hear questions from you, I'll tell you what they are!") Whatever the cause, the effect is one we all deal with--students who sit like a row of cucumbers until told precisely what they are to look for, and preferably also how to look for it. Marion has written one book on problem-posing and editted another, about both of which I could give you more details if Amtrak's motion hadn't been quite so soporific. As is, all I can say is that I have become quite intrigued with the the idea of shifting some of the responsibility for thinking up questions about a given situation from myself to my students. Preferably without getting lynched.

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