Leaning into the Discomfort

I’ve been trying to bring more inquiry into my Precalculus Honors course over the last couple of years. Sometimes the inquiry is guided; other times, it’s pretty open. My favorite section of the couse is when we do polynomial functions. We start with a big question, “How do polynomials behave?” It’s a big, open-ended question with lots of room for interpretation and almost no direction, which is why I love it. 

My students hate the question, for precisely the same reasons. They want clear direction and obvious answers. They want nothing left to interpretation, no unexpected results, and to never, ever feel uncomfortable. The discomfort is what we need for real learning, of course, but I also have to be careful not to push them too far or they’ll tune out. It’s a constant balancing act, but the pay-off is huge.

I gained a new perspective on this discomfort and striking the balance thanks to a comment Thomas Steele-Maley (@steelemaley) made on my first post on the blog. He drew some parallels between our impending trip and the learning experience I’m hoping to develop for our students. This got me thinking about how much this trip is giving me a taste of my own medicine. Being the super-organized person that I am, my impulse is to plan every stop, every meal, and every experience before we even get in the car. This will lead to a completely predictable trip – exactly what I don’t want to have. 

I’ve been chewing on this idea for a few days now, and something occurred to me. The old cliche is that, at least initially, we teach the way that we were taught. I know this was true for me, but in the last few years I’ve been moving further and further away from how I was taught and closer to how I wish I had been taught. Even so, it occurs to me that so much of what I do in my classroom is a manifestation of how I like to live. I like to be in control of my day as much as possible, to avoid surprises whenever possible. I’m wondering now how much that desire is manifesting itself in my teaching, and to what extent it’s standing in the way of my students’ learning.

I’m embarking on our trip with the goal of observing the world I see and finding ways to bring it to my students. Now I have a secondary goal: observe the way I live and reflect on how that’s affecting my students’ learning. I’ll do my best to document my work towards both goals here. Thank you, Thomas, for the inspiration.


One thought on “Leaning into the Discomfort

  1. As I met you in person for the first time at ISEEN, a conference celebrating the fusion of academics and experiential education — the respect you garner from me as a mathematics/teacher is legion. You are a brave educator and a wise person who is looking out for the students we all hold as essential to a close future of harmony — vs — the doomsday so profited by many. Your process is telling of talent and grace in the face of a complicated system. You have the right HOS and a world of research behind you for some radical yet salient change.

    I wish you cherished time with your family — emboldened with the love I’m sure is ever present, first. Then, what comes of your journey in supporting the growth of a next generation of boarding schools I support and herald, second. I would bet on both.



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