I finished reading The Smartest Kids in the World by Amanda Ripley a little while back. Her comments about math education sound like the story of my life. The book–which is fantastic by the way–compares the school experience in America to the experience in other countries. And what she says American kids think about math is exactly what I used to think about it. American kids think this:
“You are good at math, or you not. Full stop. Forget all that growth mindset garbage the guidance counselors try to teach you–it doesn’t apply to math. You are a 0 or a 1 when it comes to math.”
Let’s pause to talk about reading for just a second:
I am a good reader. My degree is in secondary English education, but I made my way through Darwinian Psychiatry without too much trouble. I think nutrition is fascinating, so I read articles on PubMed all the time about things like mTORc1, homocysteine, IGF-1, cytokines, ketones, apoptosis. In high school, just through reading, I taught myself enough x86 assembly language to create a program to back up the master boot record on a hard drive—and I even used that program once when my dad’s computer wouldn’t boot after he messed up his the partition table trying to reinstall Windows. Being able to read well is like a freaking superpower, and I have it.
But when I was 18, my ability to read well, and my ability to grow as a reader, did not make me feel in any way confident about my math abilities–or make me feel like there was the possibility that I could improve. Even ten years later, I am defensive. That previous paragraph I wrote sounds like I am trying to justify that I am “smart,” because I know I’m about to confess something shameful: that I’m bad (or was) at math.
So, back to math: I was so terrible at math the summer before college that they told me that it would take me more than four years to graduate because I would have to take so many extra, remedial math classes before even starting my major (computer science). Ouch.
I was a zero at math. I wanted to be a computer programmer, and that clearly wasn’t going to happen with the tragedy I called my math ability. And I thought nothing could change that.
My academic advisor told me that I had one hope: the ALEKS math program. (Note: for those who have not had the privilege, ALEKS is a self-paced online math education program. High school kids’ feelings about it are akin to their feelings about school lunch.) If I did ALEKS on the computer and completed a semester of math during the summer before my freshman year of college, I would at least chip away at my math requirements.
I lived with my parents and commuted to the city to sit at a computer and do ALEKS every day for 4 hours. I was in a computer lab with a bunch of other people in the same situation. We never talked to each other. There was a certified math instructor available in the lab every day to help us, but I don’t think anyone ever asked her a question that entire summer.
I know this sounds awful. Sitting at a computer doing math problems in a room with people who never interact sounds like less fun that, say, hitting yourself with a ball peen hammer repeatedly. But this was one of the most pivotal learning experiences I ever had. It was a watershed moment that was partially responsible for putting me on the path to becoming a teacher.
I had believed math was a special torture designed just for me, a task I would never master that would limit me indefinitely. But then I did 3 months of remedial math on the computer. I did so well that they decided to let me into calculus that coming September instead–which I passed by the way: B-!
I don’t know if I was just irritated with myself for being so awful at math that it lit a fire under me, or if I felt like I had something to prove, or if I just really liked self-paced computer learning, but it worked for me. ALEKS clearly is not a solution for many people, but for the first time in my life I felt like I had the ability to effectively teach myself a skill I had always believed was–and would always be–beyond my grasp. I finally bought the growth mindset rhetoric hook, line, and sinker because I had lived it.
I stayed a computer science major for one semester before switching my focus to education.
When I did this, people thought I was nuts. I had people tell me that this phase would pass, that I was too smart to be a teacher, that teaching was a dead end career, blah blah blah, the whole thing. At the time, it was really just a feeling I couldn’t explain. In retrospect, it was an easy choice.
I had just killed it at math for the first time in my life, and then because I changed my major, I never had to take another math class.
It has been almost a decade since I have taken a math class. I know all the math that I need to do in order to do my job well. I know the skills I teach well (reading, writing, speaking, argumentation, critical thinking). I know enough math to understand every article I’ve come across in a professional journal, though I admit my statistics knowledge could probably use some fine tuning.
And I was reading The Smartest Kids in the World. I was reading about math education in Poland, and I was feeling kind of dumb since I hadn’t really done any math beyond basic algebra in nearly ten years. I read about what American kids think–what I used to think–that you are born with math ability or you aren’t, and that hard work has nothing to do with it. And I got a little indignant. I can learn math. I felt a sense of responsibility. I can learn math, so I should.
I finished the book and I started Khan Academy’s “World of Math” mission. I wanted to start at the beginning and do it right, do it all the way through. Right now, I am killing it at 2nd grade math. I’ll get back to calc eventually.
Khan Academy isn’t as good of a learning experience as what I could get in an actual classroom with a well-trained teacher and a group of other learners to interact with. I would love to have an authentic, modern, student-centered, social, inquiry driven math learning experience. But I am an adult practicing elementary math in his free time—Khan Academy and my old textbooks are good enough. And here again, my reading skills will serve me well.
There’s a larger connection here, one to teaching, of course. Here it is: it is not enough that I know just enough to do my job.
I need to remember what it is like to be a learner—in all areas.
While I am definitely a learner in all sorts of areas for my work as a teacher (pedagogy, argumentative writing, reading comprehension strategies) and for fun (nutrition, psychology, biology, history, sociology, computer science, etc. etc. etc.) — math has not been one of the subjects where I have remained an active learner.
I have a responsibility as a teacher to always be a learner myself—particularly in areas that might be hardest for me. Is there any better way to develop empathy for your students’ perspective as learners–particularly struggling learners–than to still be a struggling learner yourself?
Plus, I want to add “math” to my list of superpowers. I want it for my brain, and I can have it, so I am going to. I believe in learning skills so that you can own them as part of yourself. But I can’t advocate that philosophy of learning if I never leave my little comfort zone of English literature, and certainly not if I am actively avoiding learning something out of a sense of fear and dejection.
2 + 2 = It doesn’t matter as long as you keep learning, especially the stuff that makes you feel like a zero.
Leave me a comment: what do you want to start learning that you haven’t been learning in a long time? What do you want to learn next? How are you going to learn it?