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.

Most geologists believe…

At a roadside trailhead last weekend, I read this:

IMG_6020 - Version 2

Why bother with the “Most geologists believe…”? Why not just say “The mountains surrounding you were created by the collision of continents drifting across the planet 400  million years ago”?

Usually that’s exactly the kind of thing we say, even in cases like this one in which a group of scientists has agreed upon something based on evidence of some kind.  We usually leave out the “Most scientists [or doctors or nutritionists or historians or neurologists or sociologists] believe…”

But these three words tell a part of any story that can be, especially for young people, very powerful and empowering.  If you stop to read some information at a trailhead, or you ask a parent or other adult a question, or you look something up on the internet, and what you’re told is “Many people who have studied this believe that…” you find out that the information you’re about to receive is based on something.  You find out that there was research, and also that there was interpretation.  And it is suggested to you that someone else might believe something different; someone else might interpret the same observation a different way.  You get to decide which things you believe; you get to decide which information and interpretation is most compelling.

Learning about the world and what there is to find out about in the world gets a lot easier when we’re willing to say things to kids (and to each other) like “Many geologists believe…”

Refusing to fake it

Yesterday a 10 year-old said this to me about her experience with math: “It’s like I’ve been doing it, but I haven’t been learning it. People keep saying ‘well if you’re doing it you must be learning it,’ but I don’t think I am.”

What she meant by doing it was that she was performing the tasks that constitute math in her classroom and what’s assigned for homework, but she didn’t understand much of it.  And she thought learning should be about something more than getting through an assignment.

In many cases, the old “learn by doing!” axiom is a helpful way to think about things; it tends to be much more effective to give someone the chance to actually engage in the activity of something than to just tell them about it.  But when we ask kids, and other people, to go through the motions of something without context or conceptual grounding, we drain the learning out of it.  We make it about performance and not about growth.

Every once in a while someone notices, and demands more.

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


A young friend alerted me to a game called Anomia. I’m not sure how I missed this one.

The game has a lot in common with Taboo – both are great facilitators of mental agility.  In Taboo the challenge is to find unusual or unexpected verbal pathways in the brain for directing a team member to a given word.  In Anomia, the challenge is to retrieve from your brain a word or phrase that falls into a particular category, on the spot.  (The task is similar to the one found in Scattergories, but it’s simpler with Anomia but also a little more… fast and furious.)

Built in

There’s a pair of kids in my neighborhood I probably wouldn’t recognize without their bike helmets.  Whenever I see them they’re on wheels – scooters, bikes, skateboards, Ripstiks.

There’s a pattern in the way they use the equipment at hand.  When it’s new or recently borrowed, they ride it around in front of their houses, getting acquainted with it and its basic functionality.  Then they ride to the end of the street and back a bunch of times.

Once they’ve got the hang of transport, they start looking for other ways to use their wheels.  One day I walked by and one of them was balanced on his scooter handlebars in a plank position, angled such that the scooter was still able to move without tipping over.  Another day there was a pile of loose stone in the street for a construction event and they were out on their bikes experimenting with the speed and rider position required to skim up and over the pile without getting lodged in the top layer of stone.

No one tells these kids to be creative, to challenge themselves. They just do it.  It’s built in, this drive to raise the level of one’s craft.  It’s expressed differently in different people – might be drawing, talking, writing, building, organizing, inventing, snowboarding, researching, cooking – but it’s a built-in feature.  A tremendously valuable and potent feature that’s often overlooked and undermined in the name of education.


If we’re to make any progress in the transformation of education and the realization of actual potential, it’ll be in large part because we alter the way we speak to young people and the way we receive what they contribute.

Yesterday I heard a cool story on the radio featuring 16 year-old Alexa Dantzler who decided to study the dry-cleaning residue on clothing.  She worked on it herself for a bit and then contacted chemists at local universities until she found someone who would collaborate with her on the project.  Paul Roepe, the chemist who responded (the one chemist who responded) was interested in the idea and surprised that no one had explored the topic already.  According to the segment, their investigation showed that the carcinogenic chemical does seem to linger on clothing after dry cleaning and that different clothing fibers retain the chemical in varying degrees.

What got my attention was the way this young person was addressed in the interview.  The spirit of this kind of story is too often, in my opinion, along the lines of “Holy cow!  Look at how this child was able to come up with an idea that no one else has come up with and actually do something with the idea!  Amazing!”

And it is amazing, but not because it’s unusual for young people to come up with good ideas deserving of pursuit.  It’s amazing because we make it very difficult for young people to do anything with serious important ideas because our attention is on preparing them to such things later (maybe).  Only one of the professors Dantzler contacted even responded.  Dr. Roepe did, and that was the reason that Dantzler’s idea got the attention it deserved. Young people have good ideas, ideas that express their concern for the environment. They have all sorts of inclinations toward service and contribution.  Children think more flexibly than adults do, so they’re actually probably more likely to come up with new ideas than adults are.  But we’ve grown accustomed to treating them as though they are only potential thinkers, thinkers-in-training, so this kind of thing must be the result of an extraordinary mind. Closer observation reveals that young people are idea machines, they’re just not supported in the pursuit of ideas.

The other thing that’s interesting about this story is that the sentiment of “Holy cow look what a kid did” is nearly imperceptible in the transcript but quite clear in the audio recording.  Our stance toward children is often less evident in actual words than in the tone we use to deliver them.  The host of the segment is delighted by what this young person has accomplished, and it shows; it’s probably the main reason the story was newsworthy (without Dantzler’s youth it would have been just another scientific study of carcinogens).  The host asks serious questions, but several of them he asks with a tone of surprise and (culturally sanctioned) condescension, not the respect we could hope would be afforded a person who has proven herself a mature thoughtful scientist, determined enough in her pursuit of information and truth that she was willing to withstand the prejudice of her elders. Try reading the transcript and then listening to the segment.  Young people’s lives are full of this discrepancy between the seriousness of words and tone, and it’s perpetuating the waste of potential and progress.

Local detail

Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind includes a reference to psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen’s work on gender differences in thinking.  Baron-Cohen’s work suggests that there are brains that favor systematizing and brains that tend to empathizing.  The differences tend to sort themselves by gender; more males seem to have brains that favor systematizing and more females have brains that favor empathizing.  (Pink and Baron-Cohen are careful to be clear that this is distinct from the notion that there are “male” and “female” brains.)

Baron-Cohen describes systematizing thinking: “systematizing involves exactness, excellent attention to local detail, and an attraction to fixed rules independent of context.” Empathizing involves attention to the larger picture, context, and history.

Pink’s point throughout the book is that we need both, for most demands of the current economy and technological age.  The very day I read this section, I got to see the need for both in action, in the basement of my house.  Here’s my anecdote:

“We’ll just cut a small hole in the concrete here by the wall,” the contractor explained.  I remembered a friend’s story about clouds of concrete dust resulting from just such a hole.  “Will there be dust from sawing the concrete?” I asked.  “Aw, no,” he said.  We’ll just bust it up with a sledgehammer.”

Half an hour later an earsplitting whine erupted in the basement – the unmistakable call of a very, very powerful saw.  I got to the basement stairs to investigate just as the cloud of dust began to rise and this man emerged.  “Just had to cut through the pipe,” he told me.  A moment later the smoke alarm sent its piercing cry through the house.  I wrinkled my brow in surprise and then remembered about systematizing.  Local detail.  He was busy paying attention to the hole, and the pipe, and had forgotten, or never considered, that he was in a house, with detectors of carbon and lungs and ears and upholstery.

He did a great job, on that hole and pipe.  By the time he was done, I could barely see where he’d opened up the floor.  And he was gracious and cheerful throughout.  When my ears stopped ringing and the dust finally, literally, settled, I couldn’t help thinking that we could really get a whole lot more done well, smoothly, and with minimal fallout with both kinds of thinkers on every team – someone to watch out for the local detail and someone to keep an eye on the context. We hear a lot about the importance of working as a team, and being part of a group, but it’s critical to remember that teams don’t work just because you gather up a bunch of people.  They work when the capacities of the team members are diverse and complementary.

This is your brain on exercise

Not just energized, but actually brighter. I’m reading John Ratey’s Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain.  Parts of it are technical, but even just the first (less technical) section sheds some astonishing light on the relationship between movement and learning.

Here’s my quick summary of the content: exercise makes the brain work better.  The implications of what Ratey describes are huge – the potential for exercise to prime the brain for optimal learning and to balance its chemicals such that the likes of anxiety and depression can actually lose their grip on a person.  The research suggests that the key to solving the childhood obesity problem could also get us back on track with math and science – instead of increasing academic instructional time in kids’ days, we’d increase physical activity.  This could make for contentious discussion at the dinner table on Pennsylvania Avenue…

Kids already know this, of course, which is why when you ask many a child what their favorite part of the day is, they say recess.  It’s not because they’re lazy and they don’t feel like studying (though in many cases their classes probably are boring and so it’d be hard to blame them if they didn’t).  It’s because they know they need lots and lots of motion.  Who knows what might become possible if we let them have it.