3 14s

His teacher would tell you that he can’t do the likes of 3 times 5 quickly, so I’m intrigued at this: I ask him to write a couple of practice problems for himself, and he chooses 3 times 13 and 3 times 14.  He quickly and accurately adds up the three 13s (easier than 13 threes, he tells me), and then he moves on to the three 14s.  It takes him a bit longer, and I ask if he considered taking the shortcut by just adding another 3 to his first answer.  He shakes his head and says, grinning, “I don’t like shortcuts.”

I know him well enough to know he’s not just bluffing; he knows the shortcut I mean.  He’s really just choosing to make it more challenging for himself.  I see this a lot.  Teachers and parents despair that kids can’t get their multiplication facts down (or addition or subtraction or whatever), when there’s actually something more complicated going on.  It’s not that he can’t do these problems, and it’s not that he can’t do them quickly.  It’s that many times when he’s faced with a problem he could do the same way he’s done it (quickly) before, he looks instead for a new or otherwise more interesting way to do it.

The brain hates to be bored.  It can actually rebel against something if it’s too simple or monotonous. It will often go looking for a way to stay awake, alive, engaged in the face of imposed drudgery.

The implications of this phenomenon are many, far-reaching, and serious.  We tend to diagnose processing disorders in young children when they take a long time on certain kinds of tasks.  Our intentions are good; we want to help.  But there are kids who are taking a long time at things to keep themselves interested.  We’d be wise to rule out that tendency before assigning diagnoses that are likely to further slow the rate at which we offer interesting, engaging, challenging new concepts and tasks. Sometimes it’s these very kids – the ones who are taking forever to finish the basic stuff – who most need and will excel with conceptual challenge and novelty.