Wednesday, February 24, 2016

It is real, and OK to be bad at math

One of the joys of parenthood is spending time with the child. Unfortunately, sometimes that time is tainted with math. Tonight was a night like that.

I just spent an hour trying to work through 10th grade algebra with my younger daughter. The wife also sat in and tried to make heads or tails of it. It seems, that despite our combined degrees and years in school, we cannot figure out how old Bart was 7 years ago, or what size rectangle we will be left with if we subtract 11 from the longer side.

If this was an isolated event then I might be able to walk away from it. But as it stands, I had enough trouble sleeping last night, knowing I was going to bed without resolving the mystery of which race was longer based on time and rate if something or other was equal to some fraction of the first race on a Friday in July. I tossed and turned because somewhere, someone went on two hikes and can't turn to me to figure out how fast he walked if he completed his 17th lap in France.

I could sit here all night and complain about math but that's not what I am here to do -- mostly because I want to get to sleep by about 2AM, but partially because I think that complaining isn't the way to go here. So I shift modes from parent-who-cannot-solve-for-x straight through parent-who-has-never-had-to-solve-for-x-and-thinks-learning-how-is-useless and on to professional-educator-who-is-developing-complex-schema-to-explain-difficulty-with-any-subject.

I find writing clearly to be pretty easy (my blog posts notwithstanding). I also find reading poetry and understanding it to be a fun activity. I can also do crossword puzzles, unscramble words and memorize useless trivia. I can't remember people's names but I have an eye for detail. I have noted in the past that what makes teaching so hard is that the experts in a particular field are often those to whom the skills come easily, even naturally. So those people find it hardest to break the processes down and explain them -- the skills seem so intuitive that the teacher can't understand what or how anyone else could find them difficult, and therefore can't teach them effectively. There is, it seems, something hard-wired in some people that makes the grasping of math and the ability to assimilate new mathematical concepts easier (or in my case, impossible). "Math people" and "not math people" really do exist as discrete and definable groups.

All I have heard growing up has been "you can do this -- you just need to be taught the right way." Honestly, I (as a professional educator) think this is simply not true. I really believe that some skills are beyond the ken of a particular student. No matter how often and in what way you try to explain to me "selling short" or "derivatives markets", I will not ever get it. Some things, things I can picture myself doing, need almost no formal teaching. I recall the first time I got behind the wheel of a car and started driving. My instructor asked if I had ever driven before. I told him I hadn't but that it all seemed natural. Same with playing squash. From the first moment I played in college, I felt that I knew what to do. Some people would say that I can train myself through repetition, but I think that there is a limit -- an amount one can gain and hold on to.

In college, I took a music composition class. I recall struggling at the piano to figure out what notes I was playing. By the time I did that and wrote them down, I had to try and decipher the notes I had just written. I couldn't remember what to to play -- everything looked alien to me, like I had to start all over again. When I looked at the math, the same thing kept happening. Every time I wrote out a step, by the time I looked back on it, it was as if someone else had written it -- it made no sense to me and I had to start deciphering all over again. Imagine trying to do this on a timed assessment; it isn't a matter of not understanding, but of not being able to do the steps and keep track of the thought process. That just isn't my skill set, nor that of my child.

My second is very bright. She can remember things I can't, understand things I can't, do things I can't. But she, as I, has limitations, and I think it is OK to admit that. Is a compulsory class in algebra really useful if it demands a thought process which is alien? Would it make sense to demand that every "math person" take an art class because with the "right teacher" anyone can draw well? Should I be telling every "chemistry person" to write a sonnet because "anyone can do it under timed conditions with enough practice"? I think that that is a waste.

It is time we reduced high school curriculum to address the particular skills and levels which are truly essential. My child can solve a simple equation for X. She can decode straightforward word problems. She has a handle on the basic mathematical operations. Maybe, algebra and beyond are simply not essential and should be left for those who, when they see a problem, can envision what to do and do it well. And, no, I do not say this as buttressed by the "we have computers" argument. I am not advocating that we stop teaching subjects because there are devices that can solve our problems for us, but because, on a deeper level, there are differences in our brains and some skills are not relevant -- the reward of gaining them, if that is even possible, is outweighed by the energy expended trying to get there.

Being no good at a particular subject is a real thing. It can and should be said that someone is "not a math person." We can't lay this off at the feet of "didn't try hard enough" or "bad teacher." Sure, those variables can affect success at some level, but there is a significant truth which goes beyond. Part of growing is a self-realization, a coming to terms with those things that click and those that don't.

I am in my mid to late forties. I know how to read and can look at an algebra problem with a critical eye. I know a whole bunch of mathematical techniques. But when I try them and start to hyperventilate because, try as I might, nothing seems to be working, nothing quite makes sense, and nothing falls into place no matter what I do, I should take the hint and say "I will leave this to someone who cries when he has to explain what a preposition is."

So to my daughter, I apologize. I am sorry I gave you whatever genetic marker is tagged for "math deficiency." You got lovely hair, a killer sense of humor, dance moves, and a love of biology. But this inability is real and we should stop assuming that everyone is the same and can succeed in a standardized set of ways. Math deficiency is as problematic and as valid as a language learning disability, or a student's difficulty with spelling -- both of which have paperwork and accommodations mandated for them by law.

And kid, you should not feel bad about yourself for this difference.

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