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Teaching Character in Math Classes

Teaching Character in Math Classes
I’ve received several e-mails from educators regarding how to teach character in a Math class. But every way I imagine tying the two together seamlessly seems to me to be rather artificial; e.g., lessons from the lives of great mathematicians, or integrating a moral into a math word problem.

Example Word Problem:

Henry was dating Sally. He was also cheating on Sally with Jane. How many girlfriends does Henry have now?
Answer: None. Sally and Jane found out about each other and talked.
Moral: Cheating gets you into trouble.

Hmmm…so maybe this relational triangle could somehow connect to geometry!

Rather, I think the best way I’ve seen to integrate character and math was modeled for me by Dr. William Craig, one of my graduate school professors. In a “History of Philosophy” class, the brilliant professor (two earned Ph.D.’s) would devote 5 minutes at the beginning of class to a sort of real-life moment. One day, he started class with something like this:

“You know, you can make A’s in my class, while flunking in real life. I remember a time when I was struggling with balancing studies with my marriage. I was working on my Ph.D. at the University of Munich, Germany. The academic load was overwhelming. My main professor would keep pulling out books in French and German that he said were must reads for my dissertation. When I talked to a professor about my struggles, he advised me, ‘Look around you. People around here with Ph.D.’s are a dime a dozen. But how many people do you see who have a really great marriage? Whatever the cost, don’t neglect your relationship with your wife.’ It really put things in perspective for me.”

Well, that was 25 years ago, and I’m not sure how much I remember today about Kant and Hegel. But I’ll never forget that simple life story from a teacher who cared as much about my life as about my passing his class.

My advice for leading a Math class? Introduce character by saying,

“Class, I’ve been thinking…if I teach so wonderfully that all of you pass my class with A’s and B’s, but you flunk out in life, I’ve not helped you very much. The infamous Unabomber, who killed people by sending them bombs in the mail, was gifted at Math, having taught Math at a respected university. He made “A’s” in Math, but flunked out in life. Today he’s in prison.

For what it’s worth, I’d like to devote a couple of minutes at the first of class (or on Monday of each week) to discuss some life lessons I’ve either learned or am in the process of learning. I’m not saying I’m the perfect model of these things, but I’ve come to realize that often my
character has meant more to my success than whether I made an “A” or a “C” in a class.”

Then, either tell a story from your life about how you learned the importance of telling the truth, not cheating, caring about others, diligence, etc.; or, tell the story of another person whom you respect. (I’ve got over 100 of such stories, which I call “Intercom Insights,” categorized by character trait, with discussion questions, in the members’ section of our character education site at http://www.character-education.info .) Even if you use the story of another person, I’d try to tie it in
to your personal life as well. Students like to know how your life experiences have impacted your life.

Of course, character is often better caught than taught (although a combination of both is ideal). Students will pick on on how you respect them in class, how you deal with discipline issues, how you try to treat students fairly, creating a culture of caring in the classroom. Welcoming student input into the teaching process (“Tell me personally when you think I’m either unfair or teaching poorly.”) shows respect for students’ opinions and helps prepare them to get customer feedback when they later run a business.

Another Possible Introduction

In introducing character to a Math class, here’s another possible introduction:

“Mastering this class and making “A’s” won’t guarantee your success. Studies by the Carnegie Institute of Technology found that “even in such technical lines as engineering, about 15 percent of one’s financial success is due to one’s technical knowledge and about 85 percent is due to skill in human engineering – to personality and the ability to lead people.” (How to Win Friends and Influence People, p. xiv)

Discussion: Does this mean that Math isn’t important? (No. You wouldn’t get the engineering job without doing well at Math.) What does it mean? (You need to know more than Math to be successful.)

With that introduction, you understand why I’ll occasionally share a life story or lead a discussion on a character trait or relational issue. This quarter, in addition to becoming better students, I hope we become better people.”

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