Do I Seem Stupid to You?

I’m not stupid. I know I am fairly intelligent, because as a young student, they give you tests in school, and I scored in the very highest percentiles on those tests. I was “gifted.” They put me in gifted classes, called TAG. I think I went for an hour a day, five days a week, from fourth grade through seventh grade. The rest of the time, I was in regular classes, with regular kids. We all learned the same stuff. Most of it came easily to me. Until we got to fifth grade math.

In fifth grade math, I spent a lot of time doing exercises, over and over, with no apparent reason for doing any of them. I wasn’t figuring anything out. I was just given a formula or an example of some sort, and then I was supposed to learn how to plug things in to make the “problem” and the answer look the way the teacher wanted it to look so that she could mark it correct. Except that there really was no problem; I wasn’t expected to figure out how to do anything. I was just expected to learn how to solve a problem that they were already telling me how to solve. So, i remember spending every spare moment I could find at school reading books.

I probably didn’t explain this very well. You are probably thinking, aren’t those math problems you were doing? What I’m saying probably doesn’t make much sense to you. It will if you read the article I read this morning, which explains it pretty damn well. I felt like i was reading an article written about me. I actually almost cried a couple of times while reading it.

The article was given to me by a friend. She and I both have kids in first grade. Kids who are, to be honest, kind of bored with the school curriculum in general. Take the following example. For homework, my son was supposed to use his weekly spelling words to create five sentences. Each sentence had to have a spelling word in it. (He has not received a spelling word yet that he couldn’t spell. He does not have to study his spelling words. He already knows all of them. They also get “robust vocabulary” words which are supposed to be difficult, and he has also been able to spell every one of those. He has not had a challenging spelling word yet, and he is receiving the “advanced” homework packet.)

Rollie can read the instructions for his homework on his own, meaning i don’t sit with him and do his homework with him, but rather tell him to do his homework, he does it, then I check it and discuss anything amiss. (Which is usually a problem of a) legibility or b) not reading the instructions closely and missing a step in them. I attribute both of these to rushing through the work, because he finds nothing particularly challenging to slow him down.)

So, on this particular day, he produces the following:
sentences

This was a crappy scan job, and I am too impatient to fix it, but it basically is as follows:

? ? ? ? Rollie
Who is she?
Is he nice?
Isn’t school supposed
to be fun?
Why do we have to do
homework?
Why is it not fun
at school?

Below that, it reads,

Look back here, mom. ————>
Outside on Scooter.

Do i think my kid doesn’t read instructions well? Well, i think he read it. I think he just thought it was fucking stupid, and so he did something different. I think he was trying to tell me that he thinks it’s stupid. I think he would rather be outside riding his scooter.

I also think he needs to work on his penmanship.

And then there’s the math. School started up in early August. It is almost October. They are still doing simple addition with single digits. One of his homework sheets is a page of five columns of addition exercises. Each column has 25 very simple addition problems. It is supposed to be completed as a drill. Meaning that the kid is supposed to do the column as fast as he can, see how many he gets correct and how quickly. (There is a total for x/25 at the bottom, and for the minutes and seconds it takes to complete.) They do it five times, once for each column. I time him, he rushes through, he misses none of them, he tries to beat his time.

What is he learning? As far as I can tell, not a damn thing.

He learns nothing new. No creative juices flow. He doesn’t have to struggle for anything. No light bulb goes off in his head when he figures something out.

Do you like Math? I never did. I hated Math. Turns out maybe no one ever taught me anything about Mathematics. Turns out I just learned some sad shell of math, and that all along, I detected the senselessness in it all, and I checked out. That “smart kid” (according to their tests) that I was should have been able to do this stuff easily. But I didn’t do it, because I had no motivation to do it.

I ended up in remedial Math in 9th grade. Remedial Math. And I truly believe that it was because I was bored, uninspired, and totally saw through the curriculum to the pointlessness of learning that way. There was no learning going on.

Do I seem stupid to you? I’m not stupid. But I was failed, in a way, by the very same state that I am entrusting to educate my kids.

I don’t want my kids to check out. I want them to get excited about learning. Is that too much to ask? I hope not. Because I am going to fucking ask it, and I am going to ask it a lot.

Here is a page with an introduction to the article, A Mathematician’s Lament, and a little information about the author of the article, a Mathematician and teacher, named Paul Lockhart. It is long (a 25 page PDF), and I think that if you have a kid and you don’t take the hour to read it, you are doing your kid a serious disservice, if only in refusing to take a fresh look at the way we teach math in our country. Please read it. Please.

I included a few quotations from the article below. . .

Sadly . . . if I had to design a mechanism for the express purpose of destroying a child’s natural curiosity and love of pattern-making, I couldn’t possibly do as good a job as is currently being done— I simply wouldn’t have the imagination to come up with the kind of senseless, soul-crushing ideas that constitute contemporary mathematics education. Everyone knows that something is wrong. The politicians say, “we need higher standards.” The schools say, “we need more money and equipment.” Educators say one thing, and teachers say another. They are all wrong. The only people who understand what is going on are the ones most often blamed and least often heard: the students. They say, “math class is stupid and boring,” and they are right.

And when I read that, I thought of the boredom and frustration that ten-year-old Anne felt sitting at a desk in elementary school. And I got weepy.

And this, echoing the senselessness of what i was learning. I remember thinking, but why am i doing with this?

By concentrating on what, and leaving out why, mathematics is reduced to an empty shell. The art is not in the “truth” but in the explanation, the argument. It is the argument itself which gives the truth its context, and determines what is really being said and meant. Mathematics is the art of explanation. If you deny students the opportunity to engage in this activity— to pose their own problems, make their own conjectures and discoveries, to be wrong, to be creatively frustrated, to have an inspiration, and to cobble together their own explanations and proofs— you deny them mathematics itself.

And these interesting dialogues are interspersed through the article. They are too lengthy to put them all here.

SIMPLICIO: Are you really trying to claim that mathematics offers no useful or
practical applications to society?

SALVIATI: Of course not. I’m merely suggesting that just because something
happens to have practical consequences, doesn’t mean that’s what it is
about. Music can lead armies into battle, but that’s not why people
write symphonies. Michelangelo decorated a ceiling, but I’m sure he
had loftier things on his mind.

SIMPLICIO: But don’t we need people to learn those useful consequences of math?
Don’t we need accountants and carpenters and such?

SALVIATI: How many people actually use any of this “practical math” they
supposedly learn in school? Do you think carpenters are out there
using trigonometry? How many adults remember how to divide
fractions, or solve a quadratic equation? Obviously the current
practical training program isn’t working, and for good reason: it is
excruciatingly boring, and nobody ever uses it anyway. So why do
people think it’s so important? I don’t see how it’s doing society any
good to have its members walking around with vague memories of
algebraic formulas and geometric diagrams, and clear memories of
hating them. It might do some good, though, to show them
something beautiful and give them an opportunity to enjoy being
creative, flexible, open-minded thinkers— the kind of thing a real
mathematical education might provide.

SIMPLICIO: But people need to be able to balance their checkbooks, don’t they?

SALVIATI: I’m sure most people use a calculator for everyday arithmetic. And
why not? It’s certainly easier and more reliable. But my point is not
just that the current system is so terribly bad, it’s that what it’s missing
is so wonderfully good! Mathematics should be taught as art for art’s
sake. These mundane “useful” aspects would follow naturally as a
trivial by-product. Beethoven could easily write an advertising jingle,
but his motivation for learning music was to create something
beautiful.

SIMPLICIO: But not everyone is cut out to be an artist. What about the kids who
aren’t “math people?” How would they fit into your scheme?

SALVIATI: If everyone were exposed to mathematics in its natural state, with all
the challenging fun and surprises that that entails, I think we would
see a dramatic change both in the attitude of students toward
mathematics, and in our conception of what it means to be “good at
math.” We are losing so many potentially gifted mathematicians—
creative, intelligent people who rightly reject what appears to be a
meaningless and sterile subject. They are simply too smart to waste
their time on such piffle.

SIMPLICIO: But don’t you think that if math class were made more like art class
that a lot of kids just wouldn’t learn anything?

SALVIATI: They’re not learning anything now! Better to not have math classes at
all than to do what is currently being done. At least some people
might have a chance to discover something beautiful on their own.

SIMPLICIO: So you would remove mathematics from the school curriculum?
SALVIATI: The mathematics has already been removed! The only question is
what to do with the vapid, hollow shell that remains. Of course I
would prefer to replace it with an active and joyful engagement with
mathematical ideas.

SIMPLICIO: But how many math teachers know enough about their subject to
teach it that way?

SALVIATI: Very few. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg…

And I am struck by the memory of a discussion with my child’s teacher, wherein she admitted feeling “overwhelmed” by the curriculum. Where, in the past, she could rely on her teacher’s workbook to tell her how to challenge the more advanced students, now, she was completely overwhelmed by the technology, and the websites, and she couldn’t find time to learn how to use them to differentiate instruction for the more advanced kids. And I thought, what if the person who was teaching my child had a love of math, and just started, i don’t know, getting my kid excited with thoughts that challenged him, rather than looking for the next level in the math ladder that the website tells her my son should be doing?

It is far easier to be a passive conduit of some publisher’s “materials” and to follow the shampoo-bottle instruction “lecture, test, repeat” than to think deeply and thoughtfully about the meaning of one’s subject and how best to convey that meaning directly and honestly to one’s students. We are encouraged to forego the difficult task of making decisions based on our individual wisdom and conscience, and to “get with the program.” It is simply the path of least resistance:

TEXTBOOK PUBLISHERS : TEACHERS ::

A) pharmaceutical companies : doctors
B) record companies : disk jockeys
C) corporations : congressmen
D) all of the above

I don’t want to pick D. But i pick D. I cannot deny that it is all of the above.

If teaching is reduced to mere data transmission, if there is no sharing of excitement and wonder, if teachers themselves are passive recipients of information and not creators of new ideas, what hope is there for their students? If adding fractions is to the teacher an arbitrary set of rules, and not the outcome of a creative process and the result of aesthetic choices and desires, then of course it will feel that way to the poor students.

I also must admit that there is more than one issue here: Commingled with this fear of faulty math curriculum is also the fact that I fear my special needs child (and very intelligent children do have special needs, too) is being or will be failed by the system, simply because he is too far on one end of the spectrum.

One last thing. I am not criticizing teachers here. I know they work hard. I know they are overworked and that they have limitations in what they can do based on the curriculum, testing, standards-based crap, student/teacher ratios, and class sizes. I know this.

But it does not change that I fear for my child’s education, and ultimately for his imagination and love of learning.

Did you love Math in school? Hate it? Feel failed by the math curriculum in your school system? Were you in a gifted program? What was your experience? Are you a teacher, with a different take on this? Are you a parent struggling with these issues? And if you read the article, I would love to know your thoughts on it. I am really curious.

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17 comments

  • No time to read the article now, but we are frustrated with school. If A can accomplish the bare minimum (read a story in X minutes, for example), they think they are done teaching her. Same thing with the math, except that our school has bought into the idea that to make kids like math, it must be

    . . . (wait for it) . . .

    READING!

    So, just like my sister and her peers didn’t learn grammar or how to spell because they were learning the “whole language” instead of boring old grammar and spelling words, A and her peers are not so much learning to add or subtract. No sheets of problems so that they can memorize the addition facts. Just stories that involve numbers and “number families”. Awesome. Doug subscribed to a math website and printed out the sheets of problems all summer so that A could learn her math facts because they sure as heck weren’t teaching it at school.

    I get that Rollie may be bored with the sheets of facts because he knows them already, but you’ll just have to make it a game for him to get them all right and do it really fast. Like A gets to buy a song on i-tunes if she gets 100% on her spelling tests.

    So, my current conclusion is that while TAG may be a good thing because at least they expect a bit more than the regular class, the main job of educating our kids is ours. AND, just as the public school has no system or plan for dealing with kids who may be ahead, they also have no method or inclination to help folks with learning differences or kids who have fallen behind. Unless a kid fits into their pre-defined pigeonholes (and the curriculum fashion of the moment), that kid is out of luck unless and until their parent raises holy hell. And if the parent doesn’t do it, tough cookies. Homeschooling is seriously looking good.

    In the interest of full disclosure, I was in a pull-out TAG program for all of my public school (Gwinnett County) career. And, I opted out of French in TAG to do math lab because I thought it was more fun.

  • Hi Anne,

    I read that article a few years ago and I think Dan read it too. I am sure you can guess, that I too, think that learning math should be real and relevant, but that is very difficult to do in a school setting. Great teachers try to create authentic learning opportunities, but the lessons are still contrived. Teachers are often required to teach from the book, so in doing something different, they are breaking the rules a bit.

    This last week, the media has really jumped on the idea of reforming our education system, which sounds great until I hear longer school years, longer school days and more rigor in the classroom. Nothing makes me more sad than thought of our kids being away from their families more and having to do more hours of the kind of “learning” that does not require thinking. I don’t care how fast my kid can read a story or do a set of math problems. I want him to know how to learn and how to think for himself, to enjoy reading for the sake of reading or figure out math problems because it interests him.

    Just yesterday, I was flipping through a workbook someone gave Oliver for his birthday, knowing he liked addition and subtraction, and thought, why on earth would he need to do hundreds of problems on paper, when he clearly prefers to do them in his head and for fun. If I asked him to sit down and do that, he would hat it and me, for forcing him to it. It is amazing to me how often basic math comes up in our everyday life and Oliver does math far beyond his grade level (K), mostly in his head. He wants to do these “problems,” because they are relevant to him.

    I am sure you and I could have a nice long conversation about education. Don’t let them kill Rollie’s love of learning. It is the number one reason I have gone from classroom teacher to homeschooling parent.

    By the way, I love Rollie’s response to his homework assignment!

  • great post Annie.
    I agree with what the others say, we have to see it as our job to educate our kids to a degree.
    I wouldn’t leave something that important to the school system.
    I hope that you can help them keep that love of learning!!

  • I hate math. Always have. Still hate the days where math is on the quiz so to speak, which turns out is every day. Bastards.
    Cannot take the time to read 25 pages about math.

    I used to think my kid’s school was coming close to serving her needs, but this year, I have my doubts. We’ve gotten involved and become the uberparents I love to make fun of (and slightly cringe at becoming), but there’s been no other choice. The gifted teacher was boring my child to tears, as well as every other above average child in that school. She finally has been ‘re-assigned’ out of the classroom but there is no current replacement. My husband stepped up and joined the gifted curriculm advisory board for the entire district, only to come home from the first meeting completely disillusioned…there was no ‘advising’ to be done, just listening to the woman who runs it. Who apparently gave great praise to the teacher we have spent the last year complaining about, who finally got reassigned because she did not belong in the classroom, esp. an elementary classroom, on so many levels.

    I am not up for homeschooling. Private school is not neccessarily better nor within our means, so here we are. We do supplement her every chance we get – we do think it’s our jobs to do this, so it’s not that much of a stretch, but more and more I am losing faith in the system.

    My kid’s homework from first grade became more of a statement on what bad parents we were – an essay about how I and a mom friend took her & her friends on an outing where we toured wineries, complete with pictures of us drinking wine, another on how we visited friends and daddy slept out back in a tent on that visit, yet another on how sometimes daddy is ‘slow’….

    This summer we sent her to writing camp. A neighbor runs this and deliberately set the entry age so that my child would not be the youngest – she still was, but that’s okay. Stretching is good. She wrote a short story that was entirely dialogue that was pretty impressive for an upcoming third grader. She just finished Little Women. I do the reading, Daddy does the math. We fill in the gaps and don’t mind because we do see this as our duty. But, we are becoming more concerned with the public schools…..

  • Great blog post Anne!
    I’m going to speak from a teacher’s perspective-
    First off- Yes, there are many things coming our way and so many needs to meet for our students. What we have coming into the classroom are students 3 grades below in reading and struggle with basic addition and subtraction facts. On the other end we have students testing at middle school reading levels and are in the 99 percentile in math, and then we have the middle of the road kids. Lastly, there are counties who do not provide adequate professional development to support teachers to meet the needs of all students.
    Math is also a subject that was extremely difficult for me as a child- had tutors twice a week for an hour. I think the frustration I felt as a child has made me a stronger math teacher. I seek to find ways of teaching the fundamentals, but creating opportunities for students to see how it applies in real life situations.
    What I do get frustrated with and I have been here at times- are teachers making excuses. We have chosen this profession, and like any other profession you need to deal with what is handed to you. Instead of letting frustration take over- OWN YOUR STUDENTS! We have such an amazing opportunity to contribute to student learning and be a part of their academic and social development. Do we have to seek out help, find answers, and find new ways of delivering our teaching to meet our students’ needs- yes. Does this mean if you have students who are excelling or struggling you differentiate your instruction and work- Yes. This is a job that is beyond hard (besides parenting:) but to teach well is to know each student’s strengths and struggles, know their families, and know their interests.
    I have faith in public education and I honestly feel that things are changing in Georgia with new evaluation tools (for teachers) and standards are being raised to recruit and keep quality teachers.
    I’m sorry you are frustrated- keep being an advocate for your child, always have a voice, create opportunities for your child outside of school , and support the teachers.
    I know this post sounds jumbled and probably has a million grammatical errors- don’t hold it against me:)

  • Oh, great comments y’all! Shannon, thanks especially to you for taking the time as a teacher. You know I think you must be a fantastic teacher.

    Becky – your winery thing just made me laugh out loud. Mine does this kind of thing too . . . the other day it was a drawing for Grandparents’ Day. All the kids had to draw a pic of them with grandparents and then say what their grandparents are good at. Rollie’s grandparents, apparently, are “Good at being old.”

    I do see a theme here – that I need to enrich my child outside of the classroom. And we do that. I don’t think that is a problem for most of the more advanced kids.

    But it sucks that a kid has to be bored, by law, for 6 hours a day and THEN come home for “enrichment,” when he should be outside playing, being a kid.

    And what about the kids who don’t get it anywhere but school? They’re the ones who are really failed by the system.

    The other theme i see here? Disillusioned parents.

    Sigh. What a frustrating subject.

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