Profiles in Education: Ashley Newman-Owens

We’re back with the next installment in our “Instructors with a Passion for Education series.” Veritas Prep not only has a number of experienced GMAT instructors worldwide, but many of those instructors have also pursued education as a lifelong career. The Veritas Prep faculty includes college professors, educational PhDs and Ed. Ds, schoolteachers and administrators, and many others for whom teaching is a passion and not a job. We asked Boston-based instructor Ashley Newman-Owens ‘Why Education?’ and here is what she said.

Okay, bear with me, because I promise this will be on-topic. Back in high school psych, I learned about these experiments Wolfgang Köhler did with chimps during WWI. Basically, Köhler would put a bunch of bananas somewhere out of reach of a chimp, and then watch as the chimp tried (literally) fruitlessly to get at it, until suddenly bam, insight!, the chimp hit upon some way to combine and repurpose the toys around him to get the bananas!* And my immediate reaction was man, how fun to be one of those chimps. I mean, bananas are good, but they’re not like mind-blowingly awesome (which is exactly why a single raspberry costs you more than a whole banana). Rather, it’s the thrill of chasing the bananas — of flexibly and creatively problem solving, of becoming frustrated and then recharged when you think of new possibilities — and the excitement of realizing how elements come together that make the fun. And that’s why I’m studying Math Education.

I’ve done tons of tutoring since college with a slew of age groups in a slew of different states. If there weren’t so freakishly many states whose names start with M, I could tell you I’d tutored in every M-initialed state; as things are, I’ve only tutored in 37.5% of them. What I’ve concluded is that most people, by sometime in high school, don’t experience math as a banana chase. Adults often especially not: many severed all contact with math as soon as they were allowed, and see it as a high-school bully come back to taunt them on graduate admissions tests. In fact, they’re often indignant if they’re expected to discover a way to get the bananas (yes, the GMAT expects this!). There’s a notion of ‘but I’m willing to stuff formulas and algorithms down my throat till I choke… you’re telling me that’s not enough?!’

I think this has to be because somewhere along the way in many of our math educations, the appreciation for the quest was beaten out of us. We were conditioned to stop embracing the stumbly pursuit, to stop following our intuitions and insights and to just hold our noses and swallow.

We don’t start out that way. I meet with a pair of nine-year-olds every week, for example, to whom I pose problems lots of high schoolers or adults would balk at. Them, though — I watch them stretch their brains, get frustrated, have breakthroughs, and celebrate. I watch their faith that their own minds can carry them to solutions buoy them forward and ultimately validate itself.

I think math wants to be experienced this way by everyone, of any age, but that for many of us, it’s been minced up and processed to such an extent that it seems neither internally coherent nor consistent with our intuitions. It’s become an arena of force-feeding and procedure-following rather than a playground for experimentation and discovery and surprise. I totally think we can change this — not that I can even remotely tell you how. That’s precisely what I’m in school to explore.

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*For a fabulous recent variation on the chimp experiments, watch this.