Monday, August 29, 2016

On math and natural learning


I never liked math. I learned to play the game at school: to memorize and regurgitate to the satisfaction of the teacher and the test, but I never liked it. I never learned it. I got As, but they were superficial: markers of good short-term memory and a keenness for the game of school. It really is a game and I played it well. But I never learned. Not like my children do, anyway.

My first job when I was 16 was as a pharmacy cashier at a drug store. I remember ringing up a customer's order, placing the total sum into the register, and the customer handing me a $20 bill. After the machine spit out the change due to her, the customer handed me some extra money. Looking back, I know that she, of course, wanted to round up to the next dollar and avoid a pile of coins in her purse. But I didn't realize that then. That was never on the test. I only saw what the register was telling me. I said: "Oh, I'm all set! You keep the change," thinking I was doing her a favor. She looked at me, puzzled. I'm certain I got an A on those "making change" worksheets back in public elementary school, and I was definitely getting an A in my public high school math class. In my college Econometrics class, I scored a 98 on the most-failed exam, eviscerating the curve. I can memorize and regurgitate concepts like a champ, but I remember nothing of that statistics class. I was damn good at the game. 

Being good at the game of school is nothing like real learning. 

My children have no mental model to consider math to be drudgery, to be something to just get through. They don't associate it with worksheets or gold stars or hollow letters. They love math, truly and deeply. They see it, live it, know it due to their everyday living and learning within and throughout our entire community. We have been spending a lot of time lately at our local Boston Museum of Science. Like public libraries, community-based museums are hubs for self-directed learning. There is no coercion: nothing anyone is forced to see or know or do. There are supportive facilitators and curators available throughout the exhibits to guide an activity, ask a probing question, give a demonstration. But nothing is required, nothing is artificial. Imagine if, like a public library, every community had a public museum, like the taxpayer-funded Smithsonian museums that don't charge admission. Imagine the possibilities of true public education beyond the singular, age-segregated, outdated method of compulsory schooling. Just imagine.

At one of our museum trips last week, one of the facilitators in the human body exhibit was graphing results of lung capacity tests with various museum patrons and asked my math-loving nine-year-old daughter which was more, 1.8 or 1.25? She wasn't sure. She hadn't encountered decimals in that way before. When we got home, she spent the entire afternoon watching Khan Academy videos explaining decimals, and she downloaded a couple of iPad apps that we helped her find. Now she knows decimals, really knows decimals. And she wants to know even more, to apply more of her knowledge in new and different ways. All of this sprouted from a visit to a community museum, a probing question from an enthusiastic staff member, and access to the unbounded information and resources now available, literally, at our fingertips. This isn't rocket science (though there is an app for that). Facilitating natural, self-directed learning doesn't take much except supportive grown-ups, community-based resources, and--most important of all--a child's natural curiosity and innate drive to discover that have not been scorched in the cauldron of conventional schooling. 

As Andrew Hacker writes in his excellent book, The Math Myth--And Other STEM Delusions (The New Press, 2016): "Mathematics, perhaps more than other subjects, favors pupils who give precisely the answers their teachers want. Perhaps for this reason, there's less inclination to indulge students who don't keep up. So Cs and Ds and Fs are more usual in mathematics than in other subjects" (p. 138). Hacker explains that one of the primary indicators of high school drop-out rates is the grade students receive in 9th grade algebra. He believes that the rigid, one-size-fits-all, abstract way that most schools present mathematics is to blame for this outcome, which disproportionately impacts poor and minority young people. 

I don't want my children to excel at the game. I want them to learn. I don't want them to spend their precious childhood trying to master the rules of mass schooling--rules that unnecessarily create winners and losers, often along race and class lines. I want them to spend their time and energy and talents immersed in community-based, self-directed learning, revealing passions and abilities, and having the agency to chart their own path with an eye toward community and social justice. In short, I want them to learn authentically--just as they learned to roll and crawl and walk and talk--without an arbitrary timeline and a pre-imposed curriculum telling them what they should know, when, and how.

I don't want my kids just to do math. I want them to learn it, to love it, to live it.

And to know when they can keep the change.

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