kitchen table math, the sequel: I hate math, postscript

Monday, May 30, 2016

I hate math, postscript

Actual conversation on this Memorial Day:

C. (studying for teacher exam): I hate geometry.

Me: Then you should probably do some geometry. It's good for your brain.

C.: I hate geometry.

Me: I don't care if you hate geometry. You should do some more.

C.: I hate triangles.

Me: You know I don't care if you hate triangles. You remember I'm a person who doesn't care, right?

C.: I do.

This exchange was more fun than it sounds. Lots more fun, in fact.

C. is actually enjoying himself (though he's not enjoying geometry). He's told me, several times now, "I like algebra."

I'm sitting in the kitchen, C. in the dining room, and I'm hearing "I got it right!"

"I got it right!"

That's fun!

(News flash: he just got a tennis ball versus basketball volume problem right. Progress.)

I remember, pretty distinctly, back when I was reteaching the entire middle-school math curriculum to C., that anything to do with geometry -- especially any angle-array-type image -- was a challenge. I think that's because C. is so verbal. When I was writing one of the Temple books, I found research showing that the verbal "masks" the visual. (The technical term for this may be "verbal overshadowing," but I could be misremembering.)

Here's another funny thing.

C. asked me to help him with the triangle problems. I said I would.

Then I didn't. He helped himself.

Consciously, I intended to help, but .... I didn't get to it.

This is yet another case where I think parental instincts work well and ought to be respected.

Throughout C's middle school years I was a helicopter mom. A helicopter mom and a direct instructivist. I had the t-shirt. (I still do.)

Then, when C. went to high school, I bowed out. Of course, the reason I could bow out was that we had pulled him out of our public school district and sent him to a Jesuit high school. The one and only time we had a significant problem there, with one particular teacher, Ed handled it.

My mother was sick at the time, and I was flying back and forth across the country, so I don't know what I would have done if that hadn't been the case. Nevertheless, the point remains: I was a helicopter parent up through 8th grade, then I wasn't.

C. graduated from NYU last week and starts his NYC Teaching Fellows program mid-June. He takes the teacher test this Thursday.

Today, when he asked for help with triangle problems, my cognitive unconscious apparently decided he didn't need help. And he didn't. So now I'm a hands-off parent and a constructivist.

This is the correct trajectory!

The correct, time-honored trajectory, may I add.

Treat children like children, treat grown-ups like grown-ups. An 11-year old doesn't need to teach himself, and shouldn't. A 22-year old does need to teach himself and must. And the best way to become a self-teaching 22-year old is to have teachers and parents who directly teach you when you're 11. People have known this for hundreds of years--thousands of years--and yet our public schools have somehow forgotten.

Another thing: all the give-your-child-the-gift-of-failure advice bestowed upon parents of middle school children is wrong.

Failure isn't a gift.

Knowledge is a gift. Teaching your child reading, writing, arithmetic, history, science, literature: that's the gift.

While I'm on the subject, grit is wrong, too. Give your child the gift of failure, then he'll have grit --- no!

C. is now 22 and guess what? He has grit. At least, he has as much grit as any other 22 year old, which is as much as he needs at this point. Today C. is responsible, he's independent, he's a serious person, and he's launched. He's exactly where he should be at 22.

C's friends are all in good shape, too, and none of them was ever "given" the gift of failure. When they experienced failure, the "gift" came from bad curriculum and bad teaching, and the parents responded with private tutors and personal reteaching at home. All of the parents we know protected and taught their children, and today those children are brand-new adults in good standing.

This brings me back to my long-time view that schools and governments and ed reformers and all the rest of the merry band should spend more time listening to parents and less time listening to themselves. We parents may not always know what we're doing, but we're on the ground, and we're not crazy. And we care. We don't just want to get it right, we have to get it right. Our kids' lives are our lives.

One of my favorite KTM lines, from Steve H, was (from memory): "Parents make mistakes, but it takes an ed school bureaucrat to really screw things up."

Anyway, I must get back to revisions and packing.

I just want to say, to all parents who find themselves at odds with the prevailing orthodoxy:

Ed and I did everything the authorities told us not to do, and our son is a terrific young man as a direct result. 


P.S. Just to be clear, I actually do care whether C. likes geometry. I would like him to like geometry. I don't care that he doesn't like studying geometry for a certification test. As a matter of fact, I'm glad he has to study geometry for a certification test, whether he likes it or not.

I felt the same way about the SAT.

P.P.S. Side issue: is it good to be 'rounded'? If you're a verbal person, not a visual person, is it good to do some geometry (or drawing)? If you're an academic type, is it good to play sports as well? I can't tell, and I've read research supporting building up your weak skills as well as research supporting focusing on your strengths and not building weak skills (because inside the brain, skills compete). Intuitively, I always feel that you don't want to be completely one thing and not another, but I have no idea whether that's right.

Maybe I'll develop a bona fide attachment to a baseball team one of these days, as opposed to the weak-kneed attachment I currently have to the Chicago Cubs. It's never too late.


Auntie Ann said...

Off topic:

I kept thinking about my favorite post here: "Do not press send" last week when our 8th grader had to make an Inuit artifact for an "international village" project. I absolutely refused to have anything to do with it; after having shepherded projects at this school for years, I've had enough. The school scheduled about 2-3 hours a day two weeks for the village project, but the research part lasted about a day and a half. The rest was rehearsals for a 5 minute stage presentation and making an artifact. They barely had to know anything, read anything, or write anything on the subject. They could have spent those weeks walking the kids through the basics of a research paper and having them write it. Blah.

High school awaits...hopefully with no artifacts.

Barry Garelick said...

"You know what’s the worst kind of instruction? The kind of instruction that makes kids feel stupid. And that’s what a lot of that discovery stuff does"
Anna Stokke, Math professor, University of Winnipeg

owen thomas said...

great piece here, catherine.

if you want to be really great
at something, this will require
*lots* of (at least) near-obsessive
work on *that one thing* (few
people have achieved "great"
accomplishments in more than
one field). but "dream big"
ideologies aside, this is usually
a bad idea for normal humans
in my opinion. so, heck yes.
seek "roundedness". the cliche
in math departments is that one
is more inclined to "discrete" or
"continuous" studies. my bias,
insofar as this model holds, is
to the discrete; i associate this
with my "verbal" skills being
better developed than my "visual"
skills. but i draw a lot more now...
in my fifties, let's say... than i did
in my academic-math days. and
copying the drawings in textbooks...
a darn good idea that in hindsight
seems obvious... didn't occur to me
in any why-doesn't-everybody-do-
-this way until fairly late in my
career (so i didn't get to sing its
praises nearly as much as i'd've
liked). stuff like that. but, by my
lights today "all the arts are one
art (look again, look closer)".
i didn't start cooking in any serious
way until the last decade or so,
either. everybody can't learn
everything at once. in or out
of schools. i'm of the "measure
nothing" school, pretty much. but
i knew a lot about fractions and
whatnot anyhow. this appears to
me to be one of the best arenas
to *motivate* studying the arith-
metic of fractions (adapting recipes
for different portion-sizes). also. the
mathiness of music is well-known...
but many a successful musician
can ignore if for a lifetime and
work out the moves "kinesthetically"
(that the high-theory guys have
"explained" with their fancy
shape-notes & whatnot); i'm learning
some music theory now after *lots*
of guitar playing, as it were despite
myself. so i guess you get
it by now. just keep working on
whatever project seems most
worthwhile and the need to learn
things about various arts will be clear
when such learning is seen to be
helpful in that project. that's if
there's world enough and time.
and money. oh, hi, barry. nice

palisadesk said...

As far as "roundedness" goes, one could take a lesson from the life of Richard Feynman, who was certainly not a well-rounded young person. Apparently he had one of the highest scores ever on the math entrance exam to Princeton (for graduate school) and also one of the lowest verbal scores of any student they ever admitted -- according to Lawrence Krauss' Quantum Man: Richard Feynman's Life in Science.

But Feynman branched out over his lifetime, as we know, into bongo drums, drawing - becoming a quite creditable artist - playing with ideas about consciousness and sensory deprivation, taking a year off to investigate biology and genetics, working with his son and his friends on early computer developments - in short, expanding his horizons throughout life while not inhibiting his real area of expertise and genius. Alan Turing did some of the same, as I learn from his biography by Andrew Hodges.

We may not all have such an obvious area of genius but it's not a bad idea to branch out into other areas of interest. Professional sports will never make my list, but I'm exploring some new dog sports (training a scent detection dog) and branching into obscure historical topics of interest. I think these attempts at "roundedness" should be driven by personal interest though, not some sense of obligation. A little humility helps too. I'll never be as expert on some of these newer things as i am in my professional areas of expertise, but so what?