kitchen table math, the sequel: Birth of a meme

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Birth of a meme

The new character education, coming soon to a district near you: grit.

Students need grit, and it's the school's job to foster grit.

Because grit is more important than knowledge.

Also: grit is best fostered by means of teachers telling students to do something they don't know how to do, then refusing to answer questions. In any other context, that would be rude, but never mind.

Our new superintendent, the one who was to bring accountability and every-child-every-dayness to our district, is a big fan of grit. Hosted a book club for parents on How Children Succeed the week after winter break.

He's a fan of Tony Wagner, too, while we're on the subject of expensive new superintendents with bad instincts. Vintage, pre-crash Tony Wagner, even better. (With increasing abundance, people want unique products and services!!!! So it's time to redefine rigor!!!)

Wrong again.

Here's Hirsch. And here's Peter Meyer.

At Education Week:

Unlearning Learned Helplessness

"I need help," several students said in their geometry class at Esperanza Academy in Philadelphia.

"I don't think so," teacher John Roman replied.

Roman had just given students a handout with several unmarked triangles on it, and asked them to determine which of the triangles were congruent. He also gave them patty paper (tracing paper), and said that it might help them complete the task. He did not, however, show or tell students what to do with it.


[K]nee-jerk calls for help are indicative of a common reason students don't learn to their potential: learned helplessness. They encounter an unfamiliar task (or word, formula, etc.), and immediately shut down or seek help.

The good news is that because it's learned helplessness, it can also be unlearned. And because students have learned it from enabling educators like me (until I stopped spoon-feeding them), we're in the best position to help them unlearn it....Turns out, for example, that John Roman's students had sufficient prior knowledge of congruent triangles. They were also more than capable of figuring out how to use patty paper to perform the assigned task. What they lacked was a problem-solving mindset. They lacked qualities such as determination and resourcefulness.

Yet students will only acquire those qualities if we put them in situations that require those qualities. ...After commiserating for a couple of minutes, a few students picked up the patty paper and began tracing triangles. Soon all students did this, with no help from Roman besides subtle reminders to a few students that the patty paper might be helpful.

The value for students of experiences like this has more to do with confidence than content. The more they learn with little or no help from us, the more they believe in themselves and their abilities. Sure it's important for students to learn math and science and social studies. But the real lesson for kids when teachers do what John Roman did is that confusion is where learning begins, not where it ends.

And the lesson for us as educators is that students will only unlearn helplessness when we unlearn helpfulness.
Bad character comes from sages on stages.

Good character comes from guides on sides.

A likely story.

For the record, actual learned helplessness has nothing to do with the scenario described above.

The term comes from Martin Seligman's experiments with dogs in the 1960s, which entailed giving the dogs electric shocks and inducing a state of "learned" helplessness, learned in the sense that after being repeatedly shocked with no means of escape, the animals learned not to even try to save themselves, not even when the avenue of escape was directly in front of them. Instead, when the shocks came on again, they trembled and cried, and displayed all the signs of human depression. The experiments were cruel, though I don't think the experimenters knew they were cruel, going in.

I was taught the learned-helplessness experiments in college, and the image that formed in my mind of the cowering, crying dogs too distraught to exit the shock zone -- or even try to exit -- has stayed with me.

(On the other hand, having since experienced a very similar scenario on two separate occasions, I now see things a bit differently. But that is a story for another day.)

For a teacher to appropriate the term "learned helplessness" as a description of his own students is wrong in so many ways.

UPDATE 3/17/2014: See Crimson Mom's comment. (And don't miss the never-to-be-missed Anonymous.)


Crimson Wife said...

My 2nd child has a very annoying tendency to claim not to know how to do something that he full well knows and to subsequently ask for help. I usually answer his requests for help by asking questions. So with the congruent triangles, I would ask him what "congruent" meant. Presuming that my DS gave me the correct answer, I'd ask him to brainstorm ways of using the patty paper to determine which of the triangles were congruent.

If he didn't understand the term "congruent", then I'd obviously have to do some more actual instruction.

Anonymous said...

In other words, the teacher doesn't have the faintest idea what congruent triangles are.

Catherine Johnson said...

Anonymous - you are hilarious! (I'm assuming you're the same Anonymous I keep coming across in comments.)

Catherine Johnson said...

Crimson Wife -- EXACTLY.


The utter lack of common sense is mind-boggling.

If you think your child or student actually does have the requisite knowledge, you ask 'starter' questions that get him or her moving toward the answer.

Catherine Johnson said...

What really gripes me in this case (one of the things) is that it's obvious a few of the kids either knew how to do it at once or figured it out quickly, and the rest copied.

Having the rest of the kids copy is fine; if students can learn from each other as well as from the teacher and the textbook, so much the better.

BUT the idea that everyone developed "grit" because everyone had to tough it out and conquer "patty paper" unaided is ridiculous.

Copying your neighbor does not develop grit.

Catherine Johnson said...

And while we're on the subject of grit, "sink or swim" is a lousy approach to developing grit in children and teens.

We have 50 years of research telling us which parenting style develops grit and which does not, and it's the parents who ask follow-up questions to get their child started towards being able to figure something out who produce grit-possessing young adults.

Authoritative parents, in other words.

Authoritative teachers produce grit, too: grit in the sense of students feeling they can and should try to learn and do hard things.

Anonymous said...

"Anonymous - you are hilarious! (I'm assuming you're the same Anonymous I keep coming across in comments.)"

No, there seem to be more than one of us. I'll try to remember to use initials at the end of my postings.

I could go on forever about teachers. When I was in college I picked up some spare cash tutoring on the side. I remember one education major who intended to teach 5th grade (I think). He was in a class teaching him how to teach math, which meant they apparently tried to teach him math that he'd never managed to learn in 5th grade. He came to me with a problem involving fractions. The answer key showed the solution as 3/4. But no matter how often he did the problem, he kept coming up with 9/12.


Auntie Ann said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Auntie Ann said...

Both our kids have problems with claiming to not know something which we had gone over at length just a day or two before. It's like they've never heard of it before. It always made me very frustrated. Usually, it was just a block, and walking them through the start unblocked them.

I can't even begin to count how many times they've gotten stuck, and my just asking them what they know about the subject unsticks them. I also point out to them that that is what I'm doing, and I remind them that they don't necessarily need me to do the asking. I want them to understand that if they step back and look at what they already know, usually a path will open up to a answer.

My high school physics teacher always said: if you are stuck, write down what you know. He meant you should draw a diagram (he insisted on that for every problem), write down any equation that you think might help, write down the known quantities, and usually, by the time you've done that, the path appears.

I use that with the kids every time they get stuck on a math or science problem.

Just throwing them in the deep end is useless, if you don't teach how to deal with it. There are steps you can teach kids to show them how to approach a problem. Someone, somewhere along the line, needs to help them figure out how to figure things out.

SATVerbalTutor. said...

My high school physics teacher always said: if you are stuck, write down what you know. He meant you should draw a diagram (he insisted on that for every problem), write down any equation that you think might help, write down the known quantities, and usually, by the time you've done that, the path appears.

I use that with the kids every time they get stuck on a math or science problem.

Just throwing them in the deep end is useless, if you don't teach how to deal with it. There are steps you can teach kids to show them how to approach a problem. Someone, somewhere along the line, needs to help them figure out how to figure things out.

That is *exactly* my approach when I teach: review what you know to figure out what you don't, and write it down so that you 1) are forced to clarify it for yourself, and 2) have something concrete to look at at so that you don't overwhelm your working memory. If you actually have all the pieces and are willing to think about them systematically for long enough, you'll usually find your way to the answer. The focus is on developing a process so that students can get themselves out of tight spots on their own.

For me, the problem comes when kids staunchly and repeatedly refuse to take the steps, when they flat out refuse to pick up a pencil and write and instead look at me plaintively and say they have no idea what to do. There are only so many times you can walk someone through the steps before they have to be willing to really engage in the process. When they express surprise that they're not improving, I don't even know what to say. I'm not talking about cases where there's a real knowledge problem -- these are kids who have the skills. There's really an element of willful helplessness there. They want the result, but they aren't willing to put in the work necessary to get it.

Catherine Johnson said...

BL - you are a stitch!

There's also an Anonymous who is a teacher, I think.

(Probably others --- )

Catherine Johnson said...

Auntie Ann wrote:

My high school physics teacher always said: if you are stuck, write down what you know. He meant you should draw a diagram (he insisted on that for every problem), write down any equation that you think might help, write down the known quantities, and usually, by the time you've done that, the path appears.


Again---- where is the common sense?

Qualities like 'resilience' and 'determination' also require at least **some** teaching, which is what you're doing.

Also: I imagine a person can have the qualities of resilience & determination without then knowing how those qualities apply to the specific situation of being stuck facing a physics problem.

You are directly explaining a process for getting un-stuck, and you are pointing out that they can employ the process themselves.

Is guide-on-the-sidery getting more intense as the older generation retires?

Catherine Johnson said...

They want the result, but they aren't willing to put in the work necessary to get it.


SteveH said...

It all depends on what precedes that point.

In-class group work causes many kids to become dependent on others. However, nightly, individual graded homework sets and weekly quizzes create individual grit on a steady basis. Schools need to develop the grit directly, day by day, year by year. Educators can't just do whatever they do and then hide behind "grit" when kids struggle. Are you flunking? You just need more grit. As always, the onus and blame are on the kids. Besides, what happened to all of the happy-land engagement that's supposed to get the job done? Engagement is supposed to drive determination. What happened to that?

There might be some need for cases of "figure it out yourself", but it can't be used without considering all of the details. Their answer? It's not us, it's them.

SATVerbalTutor. said...


The interesting part is that some of these kids have no problem spending hours memorizing vocabulary or doing practice sections. It's when they're actually asked to slow down and think or self-assess that they get flipped out and have no idea what to do. You're right -- the lack of common sense is staggering, but if someone has never really had to figure things out on their own, they don't have a "template" for applying that skill to other areas of life.

SteveH said...

My professional engineering society thinks that more STEM students will be created by engagement via hands-on projects and competitions. They look at programs like Mindstorms and App Inventor as models for this process. They want to try to migrate professional tools and calculations down to the high school level. This is a nice idea, but it will only create a few new STEM students.

The problem is that developing the proper breadth and depth of skills and knowledge in computer science (for example) cannot be done in this top-down fashion. It's the difference between a college degree and a vocational degree. While hands-on work may engage and motivate (I'm big fan of prototype development and learning once you already know stuff.), I see no direct connection to learning all of the broad knowledge one requires. A top-down App Inventor introduction to programming might inspire and be perfect (after school program?) for some kids, but it is NOT a way to ensure or inspire mastery of math. It won't even insure a proper understanding of data structures and algorithms. It's a vocational education, not a collegiate one.

There seems to be a really big desire by many to find some magic bullet that makes all learning driven by engagement, motivation, and grit. For Mindstorms (etal), what I see are cases of helping those already doing well in math and science. The First Lego League robotics competition, which my son did in fifth grade, tried to model what goes on in real world project development. Everyone had roles to play: programmers, researchers, report writers, graphic designers, and so on. There were only two spots open for programmers, so only two students got the chance to learn about robots and programming. The school would have been better off having a robotics club where everyone would learn something about programming. However, some of the team members were the same ones struggling in math because of Everyday Math and no amount of robotics would fix that.

I find the complete lack of common sense extraordinary. Educators want to promote the detailed thinking skills required for STEM careers, but they focus only on a superficial good idea and a vague process. Unfortunately, many fall victim to good ideas, but fail to see the details. Meanwhile, students get excited about STEM while their math grades only prepare them for vocational school. They don't need more generic "grit". They might show grit for programming a Lego robot, but fail at grit in math. Grit is not equal for everything, and grit is not just created by engagement. So now we get grit created by sink or swim techniques. How about the grit created by direct instruction, proper scaffolding, individual homework, and high expectations?

While some vocational hackers might do amazing things, most STEM careers require college degrees and success in things like differential equations and thermodynamics. A college education cannot be top-down, ... by definition. Learning how to engineer a building does not drive the math needed to calculate the neutral axis of a structural member of that building.

You might get great kudos for your MIT "Maker Portfolio", but if you are struggling to get through calculus, you won't get past the initial application sort. It's too easy for the good math students to do maker portfolios. True knowledge is NOT top-down. I advocate what I call outside-in learning and systems development.

SteveH said...


When my son was very young and I was thinking about his math education, I wanted something more that the skills-based bottom-up "traditional" education I had. Then I found out that our school used MathLand. I was horrified. They got it completely wrong. In their great pedagogical dislike for "traditional", they changed the process completely around to one that was top-down, engagement-driven, and low expectation. A bottom-up, skills-based approach could be fixed, but this top-down one is just nowhere. Rather than add a top-down component (outside-in - a real balance) to the traditional technique, they assumed that balance could be achieved by going in only one direction. It doesn't get there. Skills are not created, so they assume that conceptual understanding and using the "Think Method" will provide the skills. At least Prof. Harold Hill knew it was fake, and nobody thinks that grit is all that it takes to become a top musician. Teachers really HAVE to be more than just guides-on-the-side. Q.E.D.

Auntie Ann said...

There isn't a teacher or a parent anywhere who would disagree that kids learn best when they are turned on by a subject. The kid who gets really into dinosaurs and reads every book they can get their hands on and watches every documentary they can find on them, will learn an amazing amount about dinosaurs.

The mistake educators made was to think that you can build a curriculum around that kind of self discovery. To do it, they had to jettison anything that would never turn any kid on: math facts (drill and kill), spelling (tamps down their genuine voice), grammar (rules are for suckers!), history (dusty memorization of dates), science (what's that again...oh yeah, a class I always got a C in,) etc.

But they're still stuck. Even with what you have left, you can't create a curriculum that will turn on 15-20 kids, in every topic, in every class, every hour, every day, 180 days a year, for 13 years.

They're just flailing and making it up as they go along. Meanwhile, they keep dumbing down the tests, and even the rigors of college, to hide their failure. Parents who see it, get their kids help outside of the system--if they have the means. That's a huge problem, parents with low educations themselves won't see the problems, and poor parents won't have the means to overcome the system.

It's a disaster from one end to the other, and in a global world, even poor countries will be passing us by.

Froggiemama said...

SteveH, I really disagree with your take on programming languages like AppInventor (and Scratch even more so). As I tell my students over and over, computer science is not a spectator sport. You have to get your hands dirty and MAKE things. These languages are fully computational. I am running a project course right now where the students are building pharmacy apps, working with pharmacists, using AppInventor. The language allows the full range of flow of control, lists, structures of all kinds, database interaction, and features like interacting with with the acceleramator, and GPS.

One of the biggest problems I see with incoming CS majors is that they do not have the faintest inkling of computational thinking. Most of them have real trouble with simple sequential flow of control. You would think that is easy, but it isn't!! We spend half the first semester trying to get them to believe that the computer really executes each statement in turn. Having some experience with sequences, iteration, loops, and lists using Scratch or AppInventor would really help.

Froggiemama said...

I hate the term "grit" (ick, sounds like sand in my shoes), but I think that quality is incredibly important to success in college. Every year, I see a new wave of incoming freshmen, all of them expert at helplessness. They sit there, and refuse to take notes. They don't hand anything in and claim they were scared to try. They don'ta ask questions in class, via email or in office hours. They "forget" about exams, over and over and over. When faced with a tough task, they just sit and wait for the professor to do it for them. Or they go to the tutor and have the tutor do it for them. They want everything to be spooned into their brains in a nice entertaining lecture, without having to take notes or answer any questions. It should just be magic.

I am convinced that the extreme use of scaffolding in K12, and early college too, is to blame. The kids have never had to flounder. Everything is in a packet, with every last step spelled out. The result is an entire generation that can't handle ambiguity, or tasks without a scaffold.

The only way to learn computer science, and lots of other disciplines too, such as writing, is to do it. It would be ideal if they did it on their own as homework, but the sad reality is that very few of them would do their own work in that setup. One of the advantages of having them do the work in class is that they can't copy from each other.

SteveH said...

"I really disagree with your take on programming languages like AppInventor"

I'm not sure I understand what you disagree with.

" science is not a spectator sport"

All of the college CS courses I taught included programming.

"These languages are fully computational"

I never said they weren't.

"One of the biggest problems I see with incoming CS majors is that they do not have the faintest inkling of computational thinking."

I wasn't talking about this. Are you comparing the difference between AP Programming and some sort of top-down AP Inventor course?

I don't mean to be argumentative, but my whole point was NOT about a choice between a programming course that included programming versus one that does not.

I've seen too many programmers who can hack their way to some sort of result, but have no knowledge of things like B-trees. I've even heard that some can get a degree in CS without taking a course in data structures.

SteveH said...

Learning about data str

SteveH said...

Well, that comment got truncated and deleted right before I hit the publish button.

Froggiemama said...

The way I read your comment, you are against moving AppInventor, Mindstorms, and the ilk into the high school or middle schools because it will create hackers rather than people grounded in true computer science.

What I have seen with these programming languages (and keep in mind, not only do I use AppInventor in a class, but I have worked extensively with the people who created it), is that kids end up thinking computationally much earlier than they do if they wait until college. My own kid learned Scratch when he was 10, and by the second week had figure out, on his own, how and why to use parallel arrays. My college students, who have largely had no exposure to computational thinking, struggle mightilly with these ideas. It is a way of thinking that is different from what you do in regular math, or in writing, and the sooner kids start practicing, the better. If they came in just being familiar with sequential flow of control and variables, we could spend 3 more weeks on data structures.

When I first started teaching CS, in the 90's, most incoming students had a "hacker" background. Most were computer hobbyists, who had built their own computer from Radio Shack bits, had written spaghetti-like Basic, and had set up their own websites with very primitive tools. We used to grouse about the fact that we had to undo lots of bad habits, but we never had to teach them sequential flow! Today's students are a far cry - most have no idea what happens in a computer, can't navigate the file system (and are unaware for the most part that there IS a file system) and are terrified of the computer. They are as far from "digital native" as they could be, despite the hours they spend gaming, surfing Facebook, and futzing with their phones. The idea behind these kid languages is to get back to the hands-on, hobbyist approach - because it is far easier to erase bad hacker habits then to try to teach computational thinking from ground zero. The guy who created AppInventor, Hal Abelson, always said it was about changing people's mindsets from being consumers of technology to creators of technology.

Anonymous said...

"They are as far from "digital native" as they could be, despite the hours they spend gaming, surfing Facebook, and futzing with their phones"

But they have grit, right?

I took CS in the 1980s and have worked professionally in the field ever since. I had an inkling it was bad, but this bad? Yeah, it makes sense. A 20-something young relative of mine works in a consumer tech store but I discovered she had no idea what a DOS prompt was or what one might do at one.


SteveH said...

" are against moving AppInventor, Mindstorms, and the ilk into the high school or middle schools because it will create hackers rather than people grounded in true computer science."

I'm not saying that at all. It's not the use of these programs that cause hacking and a lack of fundamentals, but the expectations that those programs can be the driving force for a proper CS curriculum in a top-down fashion. Read my comments about outside-in and true balance.

I learned programming with card decks and my teaching days used Turbo Pascal. This was a real revolution in learning to program. All classes were about hands-on programming and Turbo Pascal was a huge help. However, if you couldn't do the program, you would flunk. Many did. Also, there wasn't enough time in class to do programming. I had too many important things to directly teach them. Students have to spend enormous amounts of time on their own programming. There is no substitute.

Tests were almost unimportant. And those were the days when students didn't have any knowledge of computers from high school. Many drop out of CS because they don't have the grit, interest, or ability to handle details. While Mindstorms and App Inventor might help with motivation, a top down approach to data structures in context will not get the job done, even if you are using C++. You need specific courses in things like algorithms and data structures.

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

I started programming in about 1969 and didn't really get into computer science as more than a hobby until about 1975 or 1976, when I switch from the math department to the CS department at Stanford and started on my CS PhD.

I've not taught a low-level CS course in years, but I do believe that early exposure to Scratch and Python helps some kids get into CS. Of course, students have to do more than just dink around—they have to build programs and learn to make them work. I had a tech club for 5th grades about 7 years ago that used Scratch. Only about 1/5 of the students actually got into the programming—the rest just wanted to play with the drawing tools.

SteveH said...

Twenty percent is actually a good success rate, but how many of those students were not already STEM-ready students? Did the tech club transfer motivation and grit to math for those not at a STEM level? Our high school's Project Lead The Way classes do NOT fix math issues. However, they do provide a great path to our esteemed local technical ('T')vocational school, where students can get college degrees. College readiness can mean quite different things.

Others are interested in university STEM degrees, so they have to take courses like AP Physics and Chemistry. Forgetting the fact that they are the classes that colleges look for, should these classes be changed to more top-down, hands-on, motivational approaches? How does the rigor compare? How about the development of breadth and depth of skills? It's not as if AP Computer Science has no programming requirement, but it might be best preceded by exposure to Mindstorms or App Inventor. The problem comes when people want to change the model for all classes. At some point you have to get formal and rigorous. One could argue for a Harkness Table approach, but too often, hands-on approaches lack proper rigor and expectations.

Optional after-school clubs have few negatives and provide needed extra practice and engagement, but the educational argument is usually stated that the top-down, hands on, engagement approach is the better of the two models and that it will get the same job done. I don't see it that way. I see less rigor. This doesn't mean that things like App Inventor and Mindstorms aren't good places to start. However, problems arise when people see those approaches as workable for all of the skills and content one needs.