Thursday, October 25, 2018

What’s the point of half-assed algebra? A case for some teens to stop

It’s a buzz word for foundation grants, optimistic local headlines, model schools, premature celebrations of against-the-odds engineers and mathematicians. It’s STEM.

Why do we love it so much? Why have so many first ladies, mayors and philanthropists thrown their dollars and heavily-made-up faces behind kids with beakers and protractors?
Better sit down and finish this...!
Part of us is going gah-gah for the narrative that a fun chemistry class or a zany math teacher will transform an unlikely young person into the next astronaut or Google executive. The other part is sighing (silently). Yeah, right. We feel it, but we know we’d better not say so.

Go ahead and measure the length of the hallway, freeze and melt some water, light that thing on fire and then weigh the ashes. We should smile and rally around the camera.
After this star-studded visit, Excel Academy was
 forced to close its doors in January 2018
for poor performance. It re-opened in August.
Too many over-promising STEM projects have made big deals about mediocre programs in math and science, only to disappoint with results later on.

That’s awkward to say, but it’s not the only problem. The other problem we are unwilling to say.

What if some teens are actually better off to stop studying a math or a science?

[In most schools, these are rigidly hierarchical subjects with pre-set texts like pre-algebra, algebra, trigonometry, pre-calculus, calculus; or earth science, biology, chemistry, physics. Even veering laterally into something like logical thinking, visual puzzles, game theory, behavioral design or psychology is rarely an option. So when I say STOP, I mean, get off that narrow conveyor-belt of classes that high schools call math and science.]

What are we expecting will come from the extra hours of painfully muddling-through by a teen who has already demonstrated no enthusiasm and very little aptitude for a subject? What will the memories of slope-intercept equations, rate-time word problems, momentum equations and atomic numbers cumulatively represent a year later? A decade later? We are (most of us) more willing to listen to reason when a child tells us she’s sick of violin or no longer interested in basketball than when she says she can’t stand another math class. Why is that?

I’m caught in the line of fire between two of my children who are non-reactive to math, their father and grandparents who won’t give up the cause. I would say it becomes evident around age 11. [With 5 kids, my sample size is small.] Before then, I agree with math-lovers that we all need a basic measure of numeracy, anyway. Counting, adding, comparing, visualizing, demonstrating equivalence, considering rates and proportions. At around 11 years, I started to see that some kids were comfortable in math textbooks and Khan Academy and ArtofProblemSolving: seeing it once, turning a concept upside down, extending a model to another application. But for these two, it has been just painful. Yes, we could play games, make models-- we have already veered into logical puzzles, game theory and perception. But mathematics the way Sal Khan, McGrawHill, McDougall Littel and the rest do it-- that became a daily misery. So when our second son was about 14, I quietly let math slide; with no major announcement to the family; we just stopped doing it. His energies veered into story-writing, film-making and guitar-playing. Our oldest daughter is now 13, and we’re getting to that point. Every hour that she doesn’t beat herself up with Khan Academy, she is sculpting, reading contemporary fiction, dancing or reading about neurobiology and visual perceptions. If I could measure their “success” in motivation and happiness, then they are really improving by setting math aside.

The math-faithful aren’t entirely wrong. Measures of scholastic aptitude from standardized tests to state-core curricula to the SAT include mathematics sections, which look to things like sine and cosine functions, polynomial factoring, quadratic formula, rate-time problems and complementary angles.
What if he's just not that into this?
Teens who have veered away from this stuff at a younger age will stand out as under-performers by these standards. It makes any reintegration into traditional classroom learning painful in this respect, and the college application process unnecessarily dramatic.

But here’s the absurdity. Teens who hate math know that they are tolerating it in order to reach the SAT. If they complete that and decide to go to 4-year college, then maybe another “core” requirement will need to be filled with some kind of math-for-poets class. But that will be all. And that will be the end. (If they shift away from 4-year university, then that abrupt ending will come even sooner). They step out into a workforce and community where almost nobody ever uses any of that McGrawHill content--EVER.

I know we’re trained to resist that observation with every muscle in our bodies, but please try this experiment with me. Next time you’re at block party (except in Cambridge, Los Alamos or Mountainview), ask your neighbors. Who has factored a quadratic equation today? Who can tell me when two drivers from Toledo and Duluth will meet?

The reality that we live with but resist admitting to ourselves and our teens, is that a few of us with exceptional talents in math or sciences design and create systems that calculate, plan, predict, and optimize for the rest of us. There is hardly an economic role for sloppy and error-prone half-competencies (Kissenger makes an ominous prediction about the capacity of artificial intelligence to re-write the roles of humans in this June Atlantic Monthly article) . From downloadable tax preparation software to Google flights to GPS navigation to online mortgage calculators to credit repayment calculators to office procurement systems, for most of us the real challenge is using the right tool at the right time as an aid to another kind of thinking.

For those other kinds of thinking, we would be wise to encourage teens to explore outside traditional curricula, while keeping eyes open to apps and tools as they emerge. How could music intervene to accelerate healing and reduce anxiety, and what tools would deliver it to the market at the right time? How could underemployed rural moms pool time to provide comfort-care to elderly and homebound people, and how could their driving and time be optimized? How could dogs trigger early warning systems in crowded places to mitigate the threat of mass violence, and how would their signals be translated across wide areas?

Opportunities are visualized by teams that bring together feeling, expressive, intuitive and calculating, ordering, implementing minds. Or creative people who find the right app to get a job done. So why do we try to stamp out teens with the same mold? We know that inspired, creative thinking is fragile among teens. It doesn’t turn on with a switch, and can be crushed by repeated failure-indications in subjects on which authority-figures place high priority. A warning against barging in on our young storyteller and insisting he should graph a few parabolas.

There is a weird and counterproductive optimism behind all this. It’s the mantra of core curriculum defenders that anybody can be anything. By investing hours and years in standardized curricula, every teen should have the same building blocks to decide to be an astrophysicist or an impressionist painter. Too bad we are all very different in our aptitudes and interests. Too bad there are only 24 hours in a day and millions of things to which you could have applied yourself. Too bad if somewhere along this boring route you tuned out and turned off.

In this family, a few of us are just pretending to be math-faithful. These years are short, and there’s so much more to do. Wait a few more years and nobody would notice anyway.

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