Just kidding

Andrea* looks down at the algebra problem she’s working through and notices that she’s assigned a value of five, rather than six, to three twos. As she erases the five and replaces it with a six, she says “Just kidding.” We both smile. Then she continues with the rest of the problem.

This is a simple but brilliant little practice of hers.  Math can be so charged, and the prospect of making a mistake in math inspires fear and trepidation throughout the land.  If a young person can relate to miscalculation as an opportunity to pretend they’ve made a little joke, they’ve got at least one way to keep perspective.

So many of the kids I work with have learned to tense up and start defending themselves when they can’t remember something or when they mix things up.  Their eyes dart up to see how I’ll react, and before I even have a chance to, they start spinning their talking wheels – “Oh, I thought we were supposed to do plus, not times… My teacher said… When we did it in class… This is so confusing…” Or they just give up all together and tell me they can’t do it.  Usually over something as small as five, instead of six, for two times three.  These kids have received the message that if you don’t get every bit of it right every time, especially the single-digit stuff, then you might as well hang up your math cleats and plan on a route that doesn’t include any numbers.  They expect to be judged on their ability to achieve computational perfection.

Andrea figured out, in time, that it’s possible to miscalculate, even often, and still excel as a math student.  And that if she keeps her sense of humor about her, she can keep her head in the game.

I’ve started telling the younger kids I know, especially those who get skittish when they mix up six and five (or write a seven open to the right instead of left), about Andrea’s just kiddings.  I’ll say something like “One of the teenagers I know, when she makes a little mistake like that, always says ‘Just kidding.’ She’s not saying that to really pretend she meant to do it, she’s saying it because it’s funny to pretend she meant to do it.  I think she does it to remind herself that making a little mistake is no big deal and if she makes a little joke about it, the mistake doesn’t distract her from the real thinking she’s trying to do.”

A couple of them have tried it, and with noticeable results.  It interrupts the habit of panic and doubt, creates a space for relaxation and ease.  And there’s nothing like a little calm to free up the mind for math.

*Not her actual name.

Forced math love

The heading of the article reads “Learning to Love Math.”  My pulse quickens for a moment.  I like the sound of this. From personal experience, I know that it is possible to learn to love math. When I was 8, and 9, and 10 years old I’d have told you I hated it.  Then I got the hang of it (or maybe something changed about the way it was offered, or even what was offered as it), and I started to like it.  Later still, it became something I would think about voluntarily, something to do for fun.  And now sometimes I get to share my love of it with other people, and then it’s fun again, and more.

So when I came across this article about learning to love it, I read on with excitement.  But then I got to this part, explaining a professor’s mission in rethinking math education: “We need to teach kids to love math, not just to get through math.”

While I agree entirely that it’s better for everyone if we come from an intention of inspiring love, rather than settling for the survival of “getting through,” the use of the word “need” left me a bit disappointed.

Every time we decide that we have to teach someone to love something (reading is another place we demand this of ourselves), we make the work of sharing knowledge and skill more difficult for ourselves and the task of receiving it more difficult for those with whom we intend to share it.  To show kids how something like math can be loveable is indeed more effective than just shoving boring-ified things down their throats.  Much more effective.

But to demand of ourselves that we get every person to love one thing is to doom ourselves to failure.  It’s just not possible. People are not like that. We’re not all going to love the same things. And further, humans (children included) are more available for learning when we don’t feel as though we have to take on someone else’s experience of the content, or someone else’s expectation of how it should seem, feel, be appreciated or used.

And we don’t have to love things in order to use them for what we’ll need them for. With the same commitment (to revealing the beauty of math and other potentially useful and loveable things), we could say things like “If we expect kids to be able to understand and use math, we should stop turning it into something that feels disconnected and arbitrary.” I know that’s probably what the quoted professor mostly meant.

But the words matter, and our longstanding habit of using the insistent language of “have-to” when we talk about young people and education is not without cost.  It’s possible to use language about math and other realms that won’t force us to face off with the diversity of human preference. We can choose words that make room for us to draw the potential appeal forth from the numbers (or the books or the music or the carpentry), words that will let us look for ways to make things feel more humane,  attractive, and accessible without insisting that those things occur the same way for everyone.

…what you wish for

I got a delightfully practical and irreverent little book about landscaping and gardening for my birthday.  (Here’s a link in case you’re in need or want of such a book.) In the section about hardiness, and which plants will grow in which zones, I came across this note of caution and wisdom from the author:

“Zone envy is natural, but each of us has good things that no one else can have.  And I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

This could be said of many things, including us people, with our various proclivities and struggles.  Those children, for example, who frustrate their caretakers with what seems like excessive sensitivity often say and do astonishingly insightful, compassionate things that less sensitive children don’t.

If you could change that thing about your child (or yourself) that you wish were different, you might also have to give up something you couldn’t bear to live without.

How much room you get

A few months ago I read a short essay by a classical pianist about creating a recording of his performance of a piece of music.  At one point in the story he mentions that the positioning of the microphone relative to the piano is important.  It affects the roundness of the sound, he says, and “how much room you get versus how much piano.” I’d never thought about it quite that way before, that of course a recording includes the surroundings as well as the object of the recording.

I was reminded of this handful of words the other day when I heard someone mention a behavioral diagnosis frequently given to young children.  I have spent enough time with a wide enough range of children with various diagnoses to know that there are very real symptoms and challenges associated with particular combinations of neurological organization and chemistry, so I do not dismiss any such diagnoses out of hand.  But I think the musician’s query about how much piano and how much room can serve us in choosing how we’ll relate to and assess a child’s behavior.  We could ask ourselves “How much is the child and how much is the room?”

It seems to be easiest and most common to head right for all-child, no room.  That assessment, locating all of a child’s performance inside his or her skin, puts us in a comfortable helping position.  We can focus all of our efforts on fixing the child’s problem.  Another simple one is all-room, no child.  This one is clean in the opposite way, vilifying the environment and absolving the child.

In my experience it’s almost always much much more complicated and intricate than either of those two possible assessments.  Just as you can’t have the sound of an instrument without the space and conditions in which you play it, you can’t have behavior without the parameters of physical space in which it occurs, the demands made on and expectations of the person doing the behaving, the words spoken to him or her before and during, and myriad other conditions and contributing factors.

When I’ve made this point before, I’ve received frustrated and even outraged exclamations that I’m failing to recognize the plights of children, that my suggestion that we be careful to include the impact of a child’s surroundings implies that I think that kids aren’t actually struggling.

And I have seen many cases in which behavioral diagnoses are assigned because the diagnosed children are behaving inconveniently, not because the children are actually struggling.  But in fact I think it’s just as important, maybe more important, to the children who are actually struggling that we consider every factor in our efforts to support them.  That we are careful to disentangle to the furthest extent possible the elements of difficulty that are inherent to a specific human organism from those that are introduced from outside the confines of the organism.

Only once we’ve asked ourselves how much of what we’re seeing is the child and how much of it is the room can we actually begin the work of tackling any truly inherent struggle.

Big difference

(I realize the blog has been heavy on the sorrowful early September school observations, so I’ll try to make this the last one, at least for a few days…)

This week’s  New Yorker cover is a drawing by artist Chris Ware which seems to be calling attention to some of the things I’ve been carrying on about lately.  It also reminds me of this thing I hear every fall at this time, at least a few times and usually several. Sometimes it’s a parent or neighbor to one child, others it’s national advertisers or public figures broadcasting it throughout the land:  a condescending chuckle with a tough-luck-for-you, too-bad-you-kids-don’t-like-it-that’s-just-the-way-it-is sort of a tone.

Interestingly, it’s a similar tone to the one we often take with one another, in shared woe on a Monday as the work week starts.  The difference is that wherever it is we’re implying we’d rather not be on a Monday is someplace we’ve agreed to be.  We may well feel that we had little choice in being there, because we have to work somewhere, but the reality is that no one said to us “This is what you’ll do for the next 13 years and this is where you’ll do it whether or not you feel safe, whether or not you feel productive, whether or not you feel like it’s a waste of your time… OK! Have a good day, see you later!”

We say we send kids to school for their own good, we say they’ll thank us later, we say it’s the best we can do.  And I think we do mean to send them for their own good, and we hope they’ll thank us later, and at least some of the time we believe it’s the best we can do.  Mostly, though, I think we just think we have no choice and there’s nothing to be done about it.  We certainly acknowledge left and right that schools are struggling and we must see that they’re taking kids down with them.

So we could just keep at it, laughing it off when they protest.  Or we could ask ourselves what the long faces and the dragged heels might be trying to tell us about the arrangements we’ve made for our young.  We could decide not to turn a deaf ear any longer; at the very least we could decide to stop making fun of them about it.

We could confront the fact that we operate as though we deserve the dignity of considered feelings, opinions, and preferences when it comes to how we spend our days, but children don’t.


I’ve posted a version of this piece at least once before, so if it sounds familiar, that’s why; it always feels worth saying again this time of year…

I still forget at this time of year that I don’t have to go back to school, so deeply set is the habit. As the emails begin to appear signaling that parents’ thoughts have shifted to school, tutoring, coaching, etc., I imagine their various children in this first week of September. A few will be relieved to have the days once again filled with reliable schedule, with crowds of others, and with new assignments, but will also grow frustrated that they can’t go faster, learn more, stop reviewing. Others still give themselves over to the trick of excitement in new clothes, notebooks, backpacks, only to realize after a few weeks, days, or even hours, that it wasn’t worth it. They remember how poorly the hours in chairs suit them and begin, that early, to look forward to June. And for others the dread sets in days or weeks before the first bell rings. Continue reading

Both experiments

I read an article last weekend about a scientist at MIT and his work on a new energy technology.  The man’s name is David Nocera.  The technology is what he calls an artificial leaf, which is designed to generate energy the way plants do, but more efficiently.  “For the past two hundred years,” he says, “we’ve been working on this other experiment, with fossil fuels, and it’s not working out so well.”

Scientists are expected to experiment.  But even in science I think it’s unusual to hear someone acknowledge that whatever is already being done, no matter how well it is or isn’t working, is also an experiment.  It would be fair to say, I think, that everything we do as humans is experimental.  We try something, and then we see how it goes.

It would make sense for my next sentence to be something like this: “If what we try goes well, we keep doing it.  If it doesn’t, we try something else.”  But it’s rarely that simple.  Because, of course, our opinions about what constitutes “going well” are very different.  And maybe more to the point, we get attached to what we get used to, and it often blinds us to unworkability, makes us skeptical or fearful of trying new experiments. In one breath we vilify the notion of experiment, if it threatens what we’re used to.  In another we defend the one we’ve grown accustomed to, forgetting that it’s an experiment too.

Anyone who has ever suggested to a parent that they try something other than a traditional educational route for their child has likely been met with an objection born of this anti-experiment sentiment.  We don’t want to think that we’re experimenting on kids.  We don’t want to think of them as guinea pigs.

We forget to acknowledge that what we’re already doing is also an experiment, and that we get to decide whether or not we think it’s working well enough to entrust children to it.  Whether or not it’s likely to offer them what we mean to offer.

When we stick to experiments out of loyalty and comfort, we’re not protecting kids from guinea pig status.  We’re letting habit and tradition replace judgment and consideration.  We’re crossing our fingers that the current (old) experiment will work out for our kids if we’re careful enough with it and navigate it skillfully enough.  We have seen (or just believe) that it does work out OK for some people, and so it feels safer to hope that it will go that way again for our kids than it does to venture into less familiar territory.  Even if we suspect the results could be better in a new frontier.

For so many children the old experiment isn’t working.  Many fail to meet the marks held up by traditional schooling, even when their parents are supportive and they show up every day, working hard the way they’re told to.  And even for those who win at the schooling game – successfully collecting degrees and winning white collar jobs – life in the current experiment is often characterized by lethargy, apathy, anxiety, depression, and much unrealized potential.

Sticking to our age-old experiment is an awfully high-stakes wager, and one we could replace at any time, the way a scientist might, with an inquiry into the kind of learning trajectories that could offer actual specific present-day human children what we want for them now and what we want for them in the future.