Out on Good Behavior is Out! Here’s my review

Barry Garelick’s Out on Good Behavior: Teaching math while looking over your shoulder has just come out, and it’s a fantastic read.

It is, among other things, a fascinating insider account of the struggles and insights of a novice grade school teacher who is also a seasoned mathematician and a proponent of traditional, evidence-based math instruction. We watch Garelick in action as he teaches struggling, under-motivated students how to subtract negative numbers and factor polynomials. We eavesdrop on the often awkward feedback sessions he has with mentors and other supervisors who are sometimes taken aback by Garelick’s commitment to traditional teaching methods—and by the compelling case he makes for them.

One of my favorite sections recounts a conversation between Garelick and his mentor Diane, whom he playfully calls his “parole officer.” After Garelick describes how he walked students through a problem that asked them to produce an algebraic representation of a flat fee plus hourly payment, Diane asserts that this didn’t involve “critical thinking” on the students’ part. “True critical thinking”, she observes, “would involve them struggling to come up with a solution” on their own.

Garelick’s response is to present Diane with a different word problem: one about the distance between two vehicles traveling at different speeds. “How far apart are they 1 hour before they meet?” She gives him “the same look I see on my student’s faces when they ask ‘How do you do this?’”, and Garelick starts walking her through to the solution. Once they get close enough for her to grasp the answer, she admits that solving the problem involved critical thinking on her part. 

But then she attempts to reformulate her definition: “applying an algorithm repeatedly does not involve critical thinking.”

Garelick replies that since the way he teaches math is through worked examples and the kind of scaffolding he just illustrated, “you will probably never see critical thinking in my classes.”

All the better for Garelick’s students—and for the students of the many teachers who do well to read Out on Good Behavior. Garelick’s ideas about how to teach critical thinking may be renegade in the education world, but they are fully grounded in the world of cognitive science. And, as we see in his interactions with students, highly effective to boot.

10 thoughts on “Out on Good Behavior is Out! Here’s my review

  1. Sold.

    Barry is one of the people who helped me navigate the mazes of public education back in the days of KTM. I look forward to seeing a long form version of his experience.

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  2. Is this the book that Barry was going to write when he was posting his pseudonymous adventures? Oh wait, no, that book came out in 2013! And those “John Dewey” posts must have been on one of the original C & K blogs.

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    1. The John Dewey posts appeared on the blog Edspresso. Then later, I wrote under the pseudonym Huck Finn, which were published at Katharine’s blog OILF. Both sets were published in the 2013 book as “Letters from John Dewey/Letters from Huck Finn”. Later I wrote under my own name a series posted at OILF and later published as “Confessions of a 21st Century Math Teacher”.

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  3. My daughter’s AP Physics C teacher has unfortunately drunk the koolaid hard (boy, do I have stories) and she’s completely demoralized. (Students ask for help;he tells them to go watch a YouTube video or ask their peers to help them. He sends them into zoom breakout rooms to work together on the problem sets that he hasn’t explained how to do, and her classmates disappear and play video games instead. It only halfway worked last year in APPhys1 in person, and it’s a TOTAL disaster this year over zoom.)

    My copy of this book came a few days ago and we’re reading it out loud together and she’s cringing and laughing along with me, and feeling a little better about her situation.

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