Dispatches from the Learning Lab: Yup, Time Pressure Sucks

Continuing the series I began here and here, about snippets of new-feeling insight about the learning process coming from my new role on the student side of the desk…

This one is funny, because I knew it, I mean I knew it in my bones, from a decade working with students; but yet it’s totally different to learn it from the student side. I’m a little late to the blogosphere with this insight; I’ve been thinking about it since December, because it kind of freaked me out. Even though, like I keep saying, I already knew it.

Learning math under time pressure sucks. It sucks.

It sucks so much that I ACTUALLY STOPPED LIKING MATH for about 5 days in December.

I didn’t know this was possible, and I don’t think anyone who’s ever worked closely with me in a mathematical context (neither my students, colleagues, or teachers) will really believe it. But it’s true. It was utterly, completely unfun. There was too much of it and too little time. It was like stuffing a really delicious meal down your throat too quickly to chew, or running up the Grand Canyon so fast you puke. Beautiful ideas were everywhere around me and I was pushing them in, or pushing past them, so hard I couldn’t enjoy them; instead they turned my stomach, and I had the feeling that the ones I pushed past in a hurry were gone forever, and the ones I shoved in weren’t going to stay down.

I had some independent study projects to work on during winter break, and what was incredible was the way the day after my last final exam, math suddenly became delicious again. Engaging on my own time and on my own terms, that familiar sense of wonder was back instantly. All I had to do was not be required to understand any specific thing by any specific date, and I was a delighted, voracious learner again.

Now part of the significance of this story for me is just the personal challenge: most of the grad students I know are stressed out, and I entered grad school with the intention of not being like them in this respect. I was confident that, having handled adult responsibilities for a decade (including the motherf*cking classroom, thank you), I would be able to engage grad school without allowing it to stress me out too much. So the point of this part of the story is just, “okay Grad Program, I see you, I won’t take you for granted, you are capable of stressing me out if I let you.” And then regroup, figure out how to adjust my approach, and see how the new approach plays out in the spring semester.

But the part of the story I want to highlight is the opposite part, the policy implication. Look, I frickin love math. If you’ve ever read this blog before, you know this. I love it so much that most of my close friends sort of don’t feel that they understand me completely. So if piling on too much of it too quickly, with some big tests bearing down, gets me to dislike math, if only for 5 days, then the last decade of public education policy initiatives – i.e. more math, higher stakes – is nothing if not a recipe for EVERYONE TO HATE IT.

And, not learn it. Instead, disgorge it like a meal they didn’t know was delicious because it was shoved down their throat too fast.

In short. The idea of strict, ambitious, tested benchmarks in math to which all students are subject is crazy. It’s CRAZY. The more required math there is, and the stricter the timeline, the crazier. I mean, I already knew this ish was crazy, I’ve been saying this for years, but in light of my recent experience I’m beside myself. If you actually care about math, if you have ever had the profound pleasure of watching a child or an adult think for herself in a numerical, spatial or otherwise abstract or structural context, you know this but I have to say it: the test pressure is killing the thing you love. Its only function is to murder something beautiful.

If you teach, but especially if you are a school leader, and especially if you are involved in policy, I beg you: defend the space in which students can learn at their own pace. Fight for that space.

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6 thoughts on “Dispatches from the Learning Lab: Yup, Time Pressure Sucks

  1. I’m sure I’ve mentioned my story to you before, but it’s the same sort of thing. I loved math, went to the University of Michigan, where they weed people out by pushing too hard, too fast, and left there believing I didn’t like math. I eventually (7 years later), with much trepidation, went to a masters program at a school with no prestige (Eastern Michigan University), where I had mostly great teachers, and fell back in love.

    I hate what school does to students. And yet I teach at a school. (And this semester I’m loving it.)

  2. Absolutely right. My goal is to find a way to do reverse schooling to deal with these time constraints. Right now I have three laptops that I use in the classroom to allow students to go to sites like khanacademy to access lessons and/or opportunities for more practice on standards they have not mastered. One of my weakest students brought in her own computer from home yesterday so that she would be certain to get one! That said a lot to me about how powerful self-paced learning is.

  3. Wow, thank you for this beautiful, insightful commentary. So true and something I needed to be reminded about.

  4. Ben

    I hear you on this one but I have a question, and I don’t mean to be simple-minded here. Given how dependent we (math teachers) are on having our students have a certain skill set when they enter our classroom, how do we manage the reality of kids having such different paces if they work at their own comfortable pace? I certainly don’t have an answer to this but I am interested in your take.

  5. Thanks for a terrific post. In addition to allowing for that space for students to explore, I often think about the over-emphasis testing has placed on student “mastery.” I read a quote recently along the lines of ‘a student doesn’t necessarily have to emerge with the understanding that the teacher has, just a more sophisticated one than he or she began with.’ That, to me, captures part of the beauty of learning…it’s ongoing. Perhaps the next time the student returns to a given topic, they will discover something that they didn’t before.

  6. Aiza – right on, I look forward to hearing more about how it’s been going.

    Jim – Not simple-minded at all. I think this is a big question, and I can’t really hope to say anything useful in a comment box. A few things feel clear to me. (1) New York’s list of required skills are both massively too long and also poorly articulated across the years, and I imagine that most states have a similar problem. At the middle school level, the Common Core is a definite improvement (for New York anyway), but I’m not sure beyond that, and it could go a lot further. In any case, I think it is imperative to have school radically reduce the total quantity of required content, to allow it to become a reasonable goal for students working at different paces to all master that content. (2) When kids are not more or less at or ahead of schedule, the current setup leads to this ridiculous sham situation where kids are being forced to learn material for tests in a time frame where the best they can hope for is to stuff enough test-specific junk into their short-term memory so they do okay, but they hate it, and they don’t learn anything deep or lasting. So whatever the right setup is, I know that this one’s wrong. (3) More broadly, and perhaps more to the point of your question, I do think that it’s important to look at lessons with a critical eye to “to what extent does the success of this lesson depend on everybody being in the same place?” Different modes of teaching lean more and less heavily on the fantasy that all students will engage the material in the same way, as do different problems and questions.

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