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.


Earlier this year I posted a link to an excerpt from a 60 Minutes show featuring Jacob Barnett. When Jake was two, and was diagnosed with autism, he seemed to be retreating into an internal world where his parents felt they couldn’t reach him. He’s now a graduate student in theoretical physics.  In his mother’s new book, she tells the detailed version of the story that aired on 60 Minutes.  As the popular summary of Jake’s story goes, his parents refused to believe that he’d never learn to walk or read. They followed many of the prescribed therapy regimens, but they also let him explore the things that seemed to fascinate him, though they didn’t exactly understand what those things were or what they would come to.  His mom, Kristine, writes in the book:

One morning when I walked into the kitchen to refill my coffee cup, the scene before me took my breath away.  Jake had run different-colored yarn all around the kitchen – crisscrossing through the refrigerator handle and around the garbage pail, the table and chair legs, the cabinet pulls, and the knobs of the stove.  The result was a series of brilliantly colored, intricate, overlapping webs.  Using yards of yarn, he had created not a terrible, tangled mess, but a design of complexity, beauty, and sophistication. …It must have seemed a little crazy to let him take over the house in this way.  Some days it was even impossible to get into my kitchen.  But his intricate designs were spectacular to look at, and when the sun streamed through the windows, the shadows they threw moved and changed as the day progressed, involving the whole room in a complex play of light and dark.  These creations were evidence to me that my little boy was in there, busy working on something magnificent.  They gave me a way in, a glimpse into his private world and his extraordinary mind.

The Spark

Jake’s parents could have ignored his fascination with light and shadows as a passing attraction or whim – they could have shut down his access to yarn and insisted that he instead spend all of his time working on his therapies – but they didn’t.  Of the many parts to the Barnetts’ story that can offer inspiration and insight to families with children who are struggling, I think this one may be the most compelling.  Their child was enthralled with things (like this work he was doing with the yarn) that they didn’t at all understand, things that could easily be deemed superfluous, a waste of time, an obsession, little more than a mess.  (And in fact such things often are, by parents and other adults.) The Barnetts were tempted to believe what professionals were telling them about their child – that they couldn’t hope for much from him. But what they decided to believe instead was that whatever Jake was up to in his mind could be the key to reconnecting with him and to helping him find a way to be with them in the social world.

We tend to dismiss many child-chosen pursuits as frivolous, cute, or passing. What if instead we took these things seriously the way the Barnetts did, even when kids aren’t retreating the way Jake was?  We wouldn’t all end up with pint-sized physicists as this family did, but we’d make it possible for a much wider range of potential to emerge and for more kids to feel as though they’ve got something worthwhile to offer, from the very beginning.

Two twos

John Holt once wrote (in Instead of Education) that no one can truly say yes to an idea unless he can freely say no to it.

Yesterday I played a round of Yahtzee with an eight year-old.  This particular eight year-old tends to favor instant gratification, a tendency which on one occasion during our game was putting his chances of winning in peril.  He loves a fast pace, and he usually acts quickly but also enjoys winning.  Because he is new to the game and its nuances, I thought it only fair to point out the potential cost of the choice he was about to make.

I should say before I proceed with the story that I have been meeting with this child for several weeks, because he’s been having difficulty in school and his mom is hoping to find a way for him to exist there with less stress and anxiety.  It has been my experience that it’s impossible to empower a person to receive ideas for making his or her experience of any situation better, (or his or her performance in any situation better if that’s the goal), without, as John Holt suggests, giving that person the opportunity to decline any suggestions made. Young people are so often trapped in patterns of generalized resistance, after many years of being bossed into things by adults whether or not those things serve and support, that they miss out on input that they might actually want.  (I wrote about this in more detail here.)  So with this child I have been, in the context of games and other activities he engaged in with me by choice, offering suggestions with the understanding that he would likely say No thank you at least as often as said Yes (if not always). He has in fact said No thank you many many times.

So when it came time for him to choose between recording a pair of twos on his scoresheet or recording a pair of threes, I once again offered a suggestion knowing that it might well be turned down.

Me: Hey, I have a suggestion for you about this one.  Do you want to hear it?

Him: Um… yes.

He stopped moving for the few seconds it took me to explain, glancing back and forth between my face and the dice.

Me: I know it probably seems better to take the two threes because that’s six, and the two twos is only four, but the thing is that by taking less than three of the threes, you sort of lose three.  If you take less than three twos, you only lose two.  Which makes it a little easier to catch up later on, if you still want to get the bonus. I just thought you might want to know that before you decide, but of course it’s up to you.

He didn’t quite understand, which isn’t surprising, given the complexity of the argument and my lackluster presentation of it. And I know he was skeptical, because he knows that in games, nearly always, more is better.  But he opted to take the twos instead of the threes. As he wrote the four carefully on his scorecard, he said to himself quietly “I think I’d like to lose less here.”

I’m certain that if I hadn’t accepted weeks’ worth of No thank yous he wouldn’t even have bothered to listen, though he might have pretended to, and might even have followed my advice. But in this case he did listen, enough to say back to himself the part of what I’d said that seemed consistent with his commitment in the game (that is, winning, which presumably seemed related to “losing less”). He listened, considered, and then acted according to the new information he had and his own commitment.  He truly said yes to it.

It could seem as though all that was at stake here were two measly Yahtzee points.  But imagine the difference it can make to a young person to feel free to evaluate the potential value of a piece of advice.

When we stop trying to force kids to take input, they become free to actually receive it.

And then what happens is that it becomes possible for them to use adults for the purpose for which we are best suited and for which they actually need us:  to be team members with them as they navigate their way through a complicated world; to let them know which things we’ve found to be true for ourselves and what has worked for us, in case it might help them find what’s true for them and will work for them.


The other day I wrote about waiting to offer help until it’s clear that help is needed and/or wanted.  Here’s a bit of follow-up to that:

When we skip the inquiry into the usefulness or necessity of a particular task or activity, we deny ourselves the opportunity to see what might be trying to make itself known in the space created by not pursuing that thing just then.  Any time we’re doing one thing, we have to be not doing another thing; everything we ever do requires the choice to not do something else. And it may in fact be that reading, for example, is not the most important thing for every child to be doing right away.  It may be that for some people the most important first thing to master is listening, that for others it’s building or sorting or observing or climbing or strategizing or swimming or questioning.

It’s possible that obstacles not only offer us, as Randy Pausch suggested, the chance to find out how driven and committed we are about something, but that they also give us an opportunity to find out if there’s something else that might be even better for us, at least right then.

What if, as a result of being inhibited in a particular way, we become able to find our way to the most productive, fulfilling, and otherwise beneficial pursuits available to each of us? The likes of which we might not have found if all of our attention was on that early reading, on getting that arm to move that one way? We don’t have to give up the difficult things to find this out.  They’ll be there waiting for us, inquiry or no.  We just might find a richness in the experience available on the other side of this inquiry that makes the difficult things easier to tackle; more fulfilling and useful against a backdrop of other tremendous purpose or reward because we’ve been willing to go looking beyond the confines of traditional mandate. We might also find that there are things we’ve struggled and struggled with, always held as essential, that turn out to be otherwise and that when we let our grip on them loosen, we get stronger, clearer, happier, healthier for what we become available to do instead.

Over the walls


There’s that great story about the patient who says to his doctor “My arm hurts when I do this,” hoping of course for a diagnosis or prescription related to his ailment. But the doctor only says “Then don’t do that.”

It’s a joke, sort of, about human behavior, pathology, and medicine in general.  It has some potentially interesting implications for learning, too, and what we do when kids don’t perform the way we want them to, or the way we think they should, when we think they should. I’ve been imagining an expanded version of this doctor/patient joke.  Of course in a real situation we would hope that the doctor would have more than simple functionality in mind, but here’s my alternate idea of how it might go:

Patient: “My arm hurts when I do this.”

Doctor: “Interesting.  What were you doing when you discovered that?”

Patient: “I was ______ [some activity or task].”

Doctor: “I see. Is that something you will need or want to do again? Would it be a problem if you couldn’t do it?

From here, the conversation proceeds differently depending on how the patient responds.  If this thing that he can’t do with his arm is something he doesn’t have much use for, then the advice from the original story might be sufficiently sound:

Patient: “Actually, no. It won’t really get in the way if I can’t do it.”

Doctor: “OK.  Then stop doing that with your arm.”

If, on the other hand (pun partially intended), the task in question is something the patient does need or want to be able to do, then more of a problem-solving approach would be called for:

Patient: “Yes. I need to be able to ______.  If I can’t then it’ll mean _____.”

Doctor: “OK.  Then let’s see if we can figure out a way for you to do it.”

The doctor is of course ready to offer her expertise, to do the diagnostic work it will take to get to the bottom of the arm’s limitation.  She’s ready to intervene to restore or create the functionality the patient is looking for. But she waits to find out whether or not the patient actually wants and needs that intervention before she embarks upon it.


We often skip over this kind of inquiry with kids. When we see that a child is not meeting a mark we’ve set, we turn quickly to the work of getting the child to meet that mark.  We make it a problem, whether or not kids ask for help with it.

We do this with the noblest of intentions, and we have our reasons.  The big one is that we’ve decided that certain things will get in the way if kids don’t learn how to do them on schedule.  I don’t happen to think we’re right about this, much of the time, because so far we haven’t updated our list of learning necessities as the demands of job markets, economies, and work have changed with time.  (Also, specific skills and bodies of knowledge don’t serve all people the same way.) We keep trusting that the things we’ve always insisted upon to equip and prepare young people for their lives are still and always the ones they need, and need first.  

There’s so much to gain in granting children the dignity of an exploratory type of conversation like this one between the doctor and patient.  By asking ourselves and asking kids whether an inability to do something, or a challenge that arises in the course of learning something, is actually getting in the way or might actually get in the way at some point in the future, we make it possible to see what is truly so and what more there is to see.  When we jump over this step, it removes kids from the process of navigating their lives.  We dole out “help” they haven’t identified a need for and haven’t asked for. And in making that choice we give them an experience of powerlessness and render the help itself difficult to receive and absorb.

Brick Walls

It’s of course true that getting that arm to move that way, or getting a young person to read early in life, or getting any other outcome we want may indeed be just the thing for the person in question.  I’m reminded of Randy Pausch’s point from his Last Lecture about the obstacles one encounters in pursuit of a childhood dream: “The brick walls are not there to keep us out.  The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something.” For some, the fussy arm or the difficulty reading turns out to be a brick wall.  It lets the person find out that this thing is worth all it takes to accomplish. For others, though, it might actually be a distraction from other more meaningful or beneficial pursuits.  At least right then, maybe always.

And then what about if there’s really something wrong with the arm or with the reading, something that isn’t about choice or will or commitment?

To me, this possibility is actually the most compelling reason to be sure that a person gets the benefit of starting from a place of his or her own clarity and commitment.  Anyone who has ever had the experience of a brick wall offered up by neurological wiring or other physiology (as with any brick wall) knows that it takes the power of personal, specific motivation to do whatever it takes to get up and over that wall.  Overcoming an obstacle just because someone else thinks you should – because someone else threatens or otherwise insists – is a much, much taller order.

The cut

TED has a new thing called TED Ed, which allows teachers to create lessons based on videos from the site.  I read this story about it in the Atlantic from Megan Garber.  There are several mentions in the piece of student interest, and how this kind of tool will means that teachers can individualize lessons according to student need.

When I was a college student preparing for my first year of teaching, one of my favorite readings was about something called generative curriculum.  We learned how to take a topic from a curriculum and make room in it for kids to study something they’re interested in.  The first time I tried it was with whales.  The whales thing was part of the fifth grade curriculum. Instead of just telling my students a bunch of things they were supposed to learn about whales, I had them choose something they wanted to learn more about (in the whales department) and then I oversaw individual projects about whatever each student chose.

It was better.  I had less trouble keeping them focused on their work than I otherwise would have (which I took to mean that they were interested) and when we were done with whales, they remembered more than they likely would have if we’d done it the old way.

Such are our attempts to “keep students engaged” and “motivate them to learn.”  These attempts tend to do a better job, but they still ignore the fact that for many students, there’s not a lot to be gained by learning a bunch of things about, for example, whales.

For some students, there’s everything to be gained.  They’re endlessly fascinated by animals or marine life or biology or all three, and they’ll likely become scientists or contributors to organizations that work to protect wildlife or use what they learn for any manner of other related things. But there are also the many for whom the whale facts are yet another reminder that the things they’re endlessly fascinated by and driven to master (how buildings are built, how to generate a vibrato, games, gadgets, fertilizer) don’t make the curriculum cut, and therefore there’s either something wrong with them for being interested in the things they are, or that they’re just plain incompatible with their surroundings and should expect to struggle to fit in. From Garber’s story:

“Classes move, together, through a prescribed — and proscribed — curriculum.  That’s been a necessary system: In a world where students are abundant and teachers are relatively scarce, grouping students into units has been a matter of industrial efficiency. It would be not only impractical, but also pretty much impossible, to create a learning model that, rather than being standardized, revolved around the individualized needs of individual students. So we’ve done our best with what we’ve had.”

I don’t think it’s true.  I don’t think we’ve done our best with what we’ve had.  I think we’ve maybe done our best within the limits of what we were willing to call education, what we were willing to explore in the way of preparing young people for life in our culture.  I don’t think teachers are relatively scarce.  I think the desire to stand in a classroom and do the incredibly difficult work of moving a large group of children through a series of prescribed lessons may be relatively scarce.  But people who are willing to and interested in sharing what they know and love with other people are not scarce at all.

We direct a tremendous amount of resource toward trying to get kids to learn things we’ve decided we should teach them even if they forget them a few moments or days later, even as many of them actively resist.  If we directed that same massive quantity of time and money toward matching young people with the materials and experiences and experts that can offer them what they’re already looking for in the way of information, skill, training, we’d find that what we’ve done so far is nowhere even in the vicinity of the best we can do with what we have.

Because of when you were born.

Several months ago I mentioned Robert Epstein’s book Teen 2.0.  In his chapter on the emergence of adolescence as a concept, Epstein also walks the reader through the history of compulsory education.  He mentions that when Massachusetts established the first public school system in 1827, which required students between the ages of eight and fourteen to attend school at least three months of the year, that if students were able to demonstrate mastery of the material to be taught during those three months, they weren’t required to go.

Epstein makes chapters and chapters worth of interesting points in this book, but this is the paragraph that I cannot forget.  Over time and for various rather complicated reasons, we moved from this kind of competency requirement to a system in which a young person is required to be in school whether or not he or she needs instruction in the areas of instruction offered.  If you’re of school age, you have to go just because you have to go.  Because of when you were born.

This is an extremely weird thing to do, and I’d venture to say it’s part of the reason we get so much resistance from so many kids when we tell them education is important so they better do their homework.  Even the ones who struggle chronically in school have noticed within the first few years of school that once they’ve learned something, they’ll have to get taught it again just because that’s what’s happening that day.  School has a little bit to do with learning, but mostly, it’s somewhere kids have to go.  (Often we dismiss the repeated instruction in the name of practice, but children know the difference between things they need to practice and things they’re being taught more than once for no apparent reason.)

When families opt out of traditional schooling, the machinery of published curriculum often mimics the situation at home.  If a math curriculum teaches and reteaches a concept, then it has to be done and redone.  Again, it’s justified as required practice, but we don’t always remember to check.  How much practice does it take, really?  Does everyone need the same amount of practice?

For now, education-wise, this is what we’ve got.  But there’s a lot we can do in conversation with kids to reduce some of the ill effects.  For a child who’s not in school, we can use whatever materials we choose to offer academic instruction that we deem useful, but we don’t have to insist that every page get done.  Or even every lesson, every chapter, every book.  Once we know a child can write the paragraph the way we want her to be able to do it, we can let her move on.  As it happens, it tends to be lots easier to get a child on board with mastering a clear set of competencies than to get her to comply with a requirement of open-ended unlimited instruction and academic work.  If we say “here are the things we want you to know how to do and once you can do them we won’t belabor them,” she knows exactly where she stands and what there is to do.

For a child who’s attending school, it’s tremendously empowering (and has a similar though not as profound effect as saying “here are the things…”) to distinguish between the things he’s being told to do that are new and instructional and those that are not.  We tend to avoid admitting such things to kids because we worry that it will undermine a teacher’s or school’s credibility or authority.

It’s worth considering whether or not this protection is worth the cost to a child’s morale.  Kids can understand a lot more subtlety than we tend to give them credit for.   You don’t have to say “You shouldn’t have to do that because you already know how; I don’t know what your teacher is thinking.”  You can say something more like “I see why you’re frustrated about doing more addition and subtraction practice.  This is one of the things that’s not working very well about schools.  We want all kids to be able to do the things they need to do, but you’ve probably noticed that different kids learn different things quickly.  You remember how it was really easy for you to learn to swim, and it took your brother a long time, but then it was harder for you to get your balance on your bike?  It’s like that with a lot of things and we haven’t worked out yet how to manage it.”

It’s a long way from where we are to where the education we offer might make sense and work for everyone, or even most everyone.  In the meantime, while we’re working that out, we’ll be wise to venture into these tricky conversations with kids about why things are the way they are, to acknowledge the things that aren’t working so kids don’t have to wonder why their experience feels so removed from what we’re insisting upon.

Rules and tools

I was helping an 8 year-old with a math problem the other day.  It looked like this:

She pointed to Luke’s pencil and said “Well, it’s not this one because you aren’t supposed to start in the middle of the ruler.” She then proceeded to try to convince herself in various ways that one of the others (besides Luke’s and Nate’s) was right.

It’s possible that no one actually told her “you aren’t supposed to.”  Someone is more likely to have said “don’t,” by which that person meant “it’s easier math-wise to do it this way.”

But we don’t tend to say things that way.  We tend, in the interest of simplicity, we imagine, to say things like “don’t” and “you should” and so kids get into the habit of turning our words into rules.  Rules that in cases like this make tools (like rulers) more difficult to use.  Every time we tell kids how to do something rather than telling them it’s how we do it, we train them to hear things as rules.  It keeps them from investigating, and then they not only get stuff wrong on tests, they don’t learn how the stuff really works.

In the case of the ruler, if kids have the chance to notice that when you don’t start at zero you have to account for the extra space between zero and the beginning of whatever you’re measuring, they get to realize what the ruler’s actually doing. Rather than feeling, as many of them do, as though the ruler is  just another mystery invented by the adults, and their only chance of survival in the world of adult rules is to do as we say and hope they don’t forget one of the rules.  When they’ve had the chance to explore and really come to understand, they’re less likely to panic if one day a test question comes along, asking them to, like this one did, really notice and account for length. Not to mention that often in the course of real life activity (sewing, building, decorating), it’s actually easier to pinch a measuring tape at, say, two and 14 and hold the resulting 12 inches where you want them than it is to try to anchor the awkward zero end of the tape, and stop at the 12.

One way to help kids find their way to the kind of understanding that will allow them to use tools and knowledge effectively and comfortably is to acknowledge that when we show them how to do things, we’re really just showing them how we do things.

Getting tough

I watched a talk this morning by an economist named Tyler Cowen about the impact of stories.  Every time you tell yourself this kind of  story (good guys/bad guys good neighbor/inconsiderate neighbor, good teacher/bad teacher etc.), Cowen says, you’re lowering your own IQ.  He’s taking liberties, of course but his point is well taken nonetheless.  Stories of good/evil right/wrong disregard the vast complexity of, well, everything.  And they leave us with little more than the comfort of believing we’re right or that we’re in the right camp.  Forgoing this kind of dichotomy means digging deep, looking farther into things than we generally go to the trouble to look.

In Cowen’s talk about stories he mentions the common story structure of “getting tough.” When we’re faced with what feels like an untenable problem, we often resort to getting tough. This is a popular one, he says:

“We [tell ourselves we] have to get tough with the banks. We had to get tough with the labor unions.   We need to get tough with: some other country, some foreign dictator, someone we’re negotiating with.  Now again the point is not against getting tough.  Sometimes we should get tough.  That we got tough with the Nazis was a good thing. But again this is a story we fall back upon all too readily all too quickly when we don’t really know why something happened we blame someone and we say ‘We need to get tough with them.’  As if it had never occurred to [a] predecessor, this idea of getting tough.  I view it usually as a kind of mental laziness, a simple story we tell: we needed to get tough, we need to get tough, we will have to get tough.”

He didn’t mention one of the greatest domestic examples of the getting tough story.  In the realm of education, we almost always resort to getting tough, on one thing or one party or another.  We get tough on teachers, we get tough on school systems, we get tough on budgets, we get tough on everything that has anything to do with the education of children. Because, I think, we can’t figure out what else to do.  And getting tough feels noble.  It feels consistent with the work ethic of our culture.  It hollers “Look how committed we are!  We’re so tough on this!  That proves how much we care about it!  We never give up!  We get tougher and tougher!”

And of course what happens is that all that getting tough trickles down to kids, who for the most part are doing what kids do automatically, which is learn, learn, learn, explore, explore, explore (though it sometimes looks like testing or pushing).  And then when it doesn’t work, when kids still don’t learn what we think they should when we think they should, we get tough directly on them. We take things away, we limit, we lay down the law.

What if we dug deeper?  What if we were to take the case that Cowen’s right, that this getting tough is a lazy story – a fall-back response born of paralyzing complexity?  Because it is.  So complex: Every time a new person is born, the adults charged with preparing that person to thrive on its own have an entirely new problem.  We say everyone’s unique, but if everyone is, which we know from genetics that they are, then we have a major challenge on our hands.  What works for one will not necessarily work for another. In fact it probably won’t.  What on earth can we do about that, if we really mean it that we want the best for everyone?  Who can blame us for falling back on an easy story, for saying “OK, well, we better just try harder to get them to memorize their facts and sit still and toe the traditional line.  Even if it seems like it’s wasting their talents, making them fight amongst themselves, making them sick. We don’t have much choice, because we can’t possibly give each of them something different even if that is what they need.”

What if we wrote a new story?  What if we wrote a story like “We have to get creative.”  Or “We have to start from scratch.” Or “Maybe we should listen to what kids are trying to tell us.”  What if we noticed that getting tough isn’t working, hasn’t worked for years, decades probably, and it’s not about to start working just because we say it louder or convince more people that we have no choice?

Both, and; Milo

Two either-or traditions in education – that one must identify with one discipline over another, and must choose between learning for practical reasons and learning for its “own sake” – can really undermine progress toward the secure livelihood and fulfilled life most people want for their children.  

In Adam Gopnik’s recent New Yorker piece about the 50th anniversary of The Phantom Tollbooth, Gopnik writes that author Norton Juster’s story of young Milo’s journey was an argument “for the love of knowledge, against narrow specialization… for learning, against usefulness.” Continue reading