It’s been a year since Oliver Sacks passed away. I’m grateful all the time for his work. Here’s a clip about his return to the piano.
As the beginning of a school year approaches, I hear from many families whose children are not as eager as those shown in back-to-school advertisements. So many young people are downright dreading it. When asked for a reason, they’ll say it’s stressful, or boring, or both.
A common response from adults is: “You can do it!”
We say this with the best of encouraging intentions. What we mean is “You’re great, and strong, and we believe in you.”
While that is likely true, it’s an answer to a question they may or may not be asking. (Not to mention that it neglects the question of at what cost.) If a young person says “I don’t know if I’m smart enough,” then some version of “you can do it” is appropriate and plenty.
But as a response to “I don’t want to go to school because it’s boring/stressful/ boring and stressful,” it misses the mark. Mostly, I think we use “You can do it” because we don’t really have time to address what these young people are actually expressing, and even if we did have time, it would be hard to know where to begin. (I say this not to suggest laziness on the part of adults but rather as a reflection of experience, after more than two decades at work on the problem!) But it’s also possible that we’re just mis-hearing what young people are actually saying; that we think this expression of satisfaction or unhappiness is actually a lack of confidence.
Either way, it’s a good idea to try to move beyond cheering kids on, to look more closely at what they’re saying and why they’re saying it. I think that in our role as caretakers and guides for young people we don’t like to get into this kind of territory unless we have solutions at the ready. And sure, they wouldn’t mind a solution, but to have their communications actually received can go a long way, even in the absence of solution. A longer way than we probably realize.
Especially if we want young people to keep talking to us, to keep telling us what’s not working for them, to keep honing the ability to express what they’re experiencing and use it to navigate what’s ahead.
“Educability, humanity’s species characteristic, is not simply a matter of learning the answers to old questions, but, more importantly, the increasing ability to ask new questions that may lead to new answers. There is always the danger that old answers will discourage the raising of new and appropriate questions, with the result that the error becomes institutionalized, often as a way of life.”
This is sort of another plug for Ed Zaccaro, but also an observation about language and dignity in the context of math.
I posted a while back about Ed Zaccaro’s Challenge Math series, which I think was written for kids who needed more than the classroom could provide, but also seems to work well with kids with all sorts of different relationships with math.
This week I was surprised when one of the eight year-olds I work with asked specifically if we could work in the Zaccaro book. I’d done a quick bit of one page with her once before, and she was OK with it, but tends to balk at anything she has to stop and think about, anything that requires reading as the Zaccaro problems do. This is not because she doesn’t like to read or isn’t a good reader. She is. But as a math student, she tends to balk at reading. We’d mostly been working on quick little problems I’d chosen for the purpose of letting her see that she is more capable when it comes to math than she has learned to believe.
She leaned right in as soon as I opened the book in front of her. She remarked on the illustration of the large sweating ants and then started reading the first problem on the page. She sped through three in a row, understanding exactly what the problems were asking for and doing much of the computation in her head. This is exactly what she doesn’t do when she’s interacting with her Pearson pages from school (which, as far as I can tell, were written and issued very quickly after the Common Core standards went into effect). She’s constantly choosing operations that don’t fit the situations in the word problems.
I’ve been frustrated with the language of many of these problems ever since the materials were issued, but in watching this child with the Zaccaro problems, I realized something new about how they are tripping kids up. The Pearson word problem language is often ambiguous, which is terribly troublesome in the context of math, but it’s also just plain dull. For kids who are readers, accustomed to sentences written with care and intention, poorly written problems are not just potentially confusing. They’re an insult to the sensibilities of the literate child. The literate person.
I realized that what this student has been doing with her classroom math work is to scan each word problem and attempt to match it with a procedure. If it looks like the kind of problem for which one should divide, she’ll divide. If it looks like you have to trace your finger across the table shown and fill in a number according to a pattern, she’ll do that. No matter that often the problem is asking for something slightly different. In order to notice that, she’d have to subject herself to the agony of reading the dull text slowly. As a result, her actual ability and number sense is obscured. In a situation in which the reading is in and of itself engaging, she is freed up to think fluidly and flexibly about what there is to do with the numbers.
What the Zaccaro book does for her (that the Pearson book does not) is offer something. That sounds too simple to matter, but I don’t think it is. An offering concerns itself with presentation and connection, free of attachment to result. It is the fundamental unit of authentic human exchange. It says “Here. This is for you to have and use if you choose.” It grants dignity, agency, autonomy. In the course of our deep but desperate commitment to educate, we’ve moved away from offering toward mandate and decree, often undermining our ability to pass on what there is of useful knowledge and skill to our young.
The good news is we can resume a culture of offering any time we want.
I asked a high-school aged friend if she’s thought about what she might want to study in college (she’d already told me she wants to go) or what she might want to do after college. She hesitated, and then said that she really likes science but she’s terrible at memorizing things, so probably she’ll do something with history instead. She said she’s especially interested in environmental science and issues related to climate change.
You could think of this as a teaching or curriculum problem, but I don’t think it really is. I think it’s a sorting problem. Or a problem with how we’ve taught ourselves to imagine we should be sorted when it comes to ability and suited-ness to particular tasks and professions. And also a problem with how we think about what our brains are best used for.
This young person thinks that her difficulty with memorizing will exclude her (or should exclude her) from a career in science. She has classmates who memorize easily, and they are the ones with high scores on tests and in courses. So on paper, on transcripts, if it’s good grades that tell us about someone’s aptitude for a particular area of study, we can see that her quick-memorizing classmates are the ones destined for careers in science. Yes, many a good teacher will tell you that if you don’t emphasize the memorization you can show something different with how you grade, but for most students in most schools, information recall is a big factor in grade determination and a teacher who makes it otherwise is swimming upstream and trying to pull her students along with her against a strong current.
What would we have to do to make it otherwise? First we’d have to decide whether we believe that a scientist must be able to keep on hand a multitude of data. Must one? I’d guess not, at a time when it’s possible to put a handheld device with endless data in the hand of any professional anything. Wouldn’t it make sense for the first qualifying characteristic for a career in science (or any participation in science) be an interest in participating, and then perhaps the second an interest in and capacity for problem solving and analytical thought? Science once required extensive memorization, but it doesn’t any more, and we’ve got big enough problems, and many enough problems, that the more solvers we can get on them the better, it seems to me. To exclude the ones who can’t memorize stuff as well as some others can memorize stuff seems unwise. Not to mention that the good memorizers might be put to better use elsewhere especially if they’re not interested in the careers and occupations that their memorizing might qualify them for and point them in the direction of.
I was on the phone with a mom today who told me this story about her son, who thinks of himself as a lousy student who can’t do math and isn’t much better at other things. She told me:
“I was filling out the form [for school] and I asked him what he thought his new teacher should know about him. If there were one thing he’d want her to know, what would it be? He sat there for a minute, looking out the window, and then as he went back to what he was doing he said ‘Tell them I’m kind.'”
This child knows that kindness is not the currency of schooling. He knows that it isn’t what anyone will be measuring when he gets there. And maybe he thinks that kindness is all he has to offer, in spite of its relatively low value in the eyes of the institution (as indicated by the fact that it doesn’t appear on any report card he’s ever seen or heard of).
Or maybe he thinks it’s important, and thinks that while his past performance on timed math tests and the like suggests he doesn’t have what school is looking for, he does have something that matters, or something that should.