“Gifted” Is a Theological Word

Quite the juicy convo on Twitter:

Hard not to reply with every thought I have, but I want to keep the scope limited. One idea at a time.

In some sense, I work in “gifted education.” Big ups to BEAM, my favorite place to teach. This is a program that is addressing the intellectual hunger of students who are ready to go far beyond what they are doing in school. I have profound conviction that we are doing something worthwhile and important. (NB: to my knowledge, BEAM does not use the word “gifted” in any official materials, and most BEAM personnel do not use it with our kids out of growth mindset concerns.)

It is also true that I myself had a very different profile of needs from my peers at school as a young student of math. I taught myself basic calculus in 5th grade from an old textbook. I read math books voraciously through middle school, and in class just worked self-directedly on my own projects because I already knew what we were supposed to be learning. I am not mad that I didn’t have more mathematical mentorship back then — my teachers did their best to find challenges for me, I appreciated them both for that and for the latitude to follow my own interests, and in any case things have worked out perfectly — but looking back, at least from a strictly mathematical point of view, I definitely could have benefited from more tailored guidance in navigating my interests.

In this context I want to open an inquiry into the word “gifted” as it is used in education.

I hope the above makes clear that this inquiry is not about whether different students have different needs. That is a settled matter; a plain fact.

The subject of my inquiry is how we conceive of those differences. What images, narratives, stories, assumptions, etc., are implicit in how we describe them. In particular, what images, narratives, stories, and assumptions are carried by the word “gifted”?

This question is too big a topic for today. Today, I just want to make one mild offer to that inquiry, intended only to bring out that there is a real question here — that “gifted” is not a bare, aseptic descriptor of a material state of affairs, but something much more pregnant — containing multitudes. It is this:

“Gifted” is a theological word.

What do I mean?

A gift is something that is given; bestowed. My nephews recently bestowed on me a set of Hogwarts pajamas, fine, ok, but when we speak of “giftedness,” you know we are not discussing anything that was bestowed by any human.

By whom, then, is it supposed to have been bestowed?

You know the answer — by God. Or if not God, then by “Nature,” the Enlightenment’s way of saying God without saying God.

When we say a child is “gifted,” we are declaring them to have been selected as the recipient of a divine endowment. Each of these words carries a whole lot of meaning extrinsic to scientific description of the situation — selected; recipient; divine; endowment.

When we use this word in contemporary educational discourse, we usually aren’t consciously evoking any of this. Nothing stops a committed atheist from saying a kid is gifted. Nonetheless, I don’t think it can really be avoided.

Why I say this is how easily and quickly the full story — selected, recipient, divine endowment — becomes part of the logic of how people reason about what to do with a student so labeled. To illustrate with a contemporary slice of pop culture, the 2017 film Gifted, starring McKenna Grace, Chris Evans, Lindsay Duncan and Jenny Slate, hinges on the question of what is a family’s obligation to its child’s gift? How can a bare material state of affairs create a moral obligation? — but being chosen as the custodian of a divine spark on the other hand, it’s easy to see how to get from that to something somebody owes.

So, this is my initial offer. I’m not saying anything about what to do with this. For example, I am not evaluating Michael’s assertion that “giftedness is true.” I’m just trying to flesh out what that assertion means — to call attention to the sea of cultural worldview supporting the vessel of that little word.


My Favorite Nerds on Television

Speaking as somebody who has been a nerd since long before that was a thing, these last 30 years have really been a trip as far as the way the word “nerd” has changed in the public sphere. I was a kid in the ’80s. Back then, nerds in pop culture meant short goofy men, usually named Louis, who couldn’t get it together under any circumstances. Now we have Zac Efron, Chris Hemsworth, Mila Kunis, Karlie Kloss, Michael Fassbender, and Selena Gomez all identifying as nerds on the record.

This is a real shift. It’s a juicy sociological question why and how. I don’t think anybody doubts that the ascendancy of Silicon Valley, e.g. the kingmaking of Mark Zuckerberg, had something to do with it. I’m inclined to believe that the internet had a more democratic role to play as well: the birth of virality allowed us, the people, at least briefly, to start declaring what was awesome without corporate mediation. Suddenly everybody’s private nerdiness had a mechanism to go public, and when it did, we crowned things that the arbiters of the pre-Youtube media landscape would have dismissed instantly, if they had even noticed them. Remember Chewbacca Mom? How about Chocolate Rain? Nerdiness has been validated by visible numerical strength. Well, anyway, I’m not trying to do sociology here, I’m just speculating. But something has really changed.

But it also hasn’t. But it has, but it hasn’t, but it has, but it hasn’t. The highest-rated non-sports TV show of the 2016-2017 season was The Big Bang Theory, which this fall will enter its 11th season. (I’m not presuming Nielsen ratings are still definitive of anything, but clearly it’s at least a big deal.) I feel like I’m supposed to like this show, but it’s always rubbed me wrong. It’s 2017 and “nerd” still means overgrown child? Female nerdiness is still essentially secondary and nonwhite nerdiness essentially tokenistic? Brainy people can’t aspire to social maturity and socially mature people can’t aspire to braininess? Maybe I’m being unfair to the show but that’s how it makes me feel.

Nonetheless, the more democratic side of nerd ascendancy has furnished us with a wider variety of screen representations than I could have imagined back then. So I want to take a moment to give some props to three + two of my very favorites.

Quick disclaimers: (1) I do not watch a ton of television. I’m sure there are a bunch of awesome nerds I don’t know anything about. (2) Spoiler alert! Information about these characters is freely discussed. You’ve been warned.

Ok, without further ado, and in no particular order,

My favorite nerds on television!

Willow Rosenberg, Buffy the Vampire Slayer


C’mon, y’all, of course! Buffy’s shy, self-effacing, brainiac-hacker-turned-sorceress bestie is the first time I think I saw a nerd on TV get to be a whole person. This show was written into nerd canon the moment in the very first episode when Buffy, courted by mean-girl Cordelia, decisively sides with Willow instead —

and its place was sealed in episode 2 when Willow quietly sticks up for Buffy, and then for herself —

But Willow wouldn’t have been part of the inspiration for this post if things had stayed where they were early in season 1. The thing I love about the portrayal of Willow was that she got to be a multidimensional, changing human. I’ve seen seasons 1-5 and part of 6, and over the course of that time Willow investigates many different sides of herself and ways of being — group belonging vs. autonomy; sexuality and partnership; power, creation and destruction; selflessness vs. ego. A really wide range of self-experience is part of being human, but they never used to write nerds this way.

Case in point: when an ’80s / ’90s nerd obtains some swagger, it’s usually due to some sort of magical or science-fictional intervention, cf. Stefan Urquelle. (Drugs and alcohol can serve the magical purpose as well, cf. Poindexter.) The entertainment value is the contrast between the magic/science/psychotropics-enhanced version of the character and the swaggerless everyday version. Buffy plays with that trope too — in a classic episode in season 3, an evil vampire version of Willow shows up in town, rocking leather and taking absolutely no sh*t from anyone.


But in the Buffyverse, this is an opportunity for the character to grow. A plot device occasions the real Willow to have to impersonate her evil vampire twin, and she’s forced to try on some unaccustomed ways of being — assertive; fear-inspiring; fearless; sexually confident. They feel weird and uncomfortable to her in the moment, but they also resonate — indeed, it was a shy but defiant experiment in power and danger by real Willow herself that (accidentally) brought evil twin Willow to town in the first place. And without doubt, the whole experience opens up new avenues of selfhood for Willow to explore.

Seymour Birkhoff, Nikita


I don’t know why the CW’s reboot of La Femme Nikita wasn’t more of a thing. A and I were totally obsessed with it. And one of the (many) reasons was Seymour Birkhoff, the Star-Wars-Lord-of-the-Rings-quoting black-ops technology specialist.

In a lesser show, Birkhoff would have been a purely instrumental character, there to solve plot problems. “We need to hack into this network — where’s Birkhoff?” In this show, he’s a principal, and his relationship with the other leads, especially Michael and Nikita, are at the heart of the whole thing.

(Spoiler warning if you’re not in season 2 yet!)

Like Willow, over the course of the show’s 4 seasons, Birkhoff gets to be a whole person. Fearful, brave, valorous; selfish, loyal; supportive, needy; a truthteller and a deceiver. Powerful and vulnerable.


Like Willow, this range of experience never compromises the legit nerdiness. It’s a different flavor than hers: a familiar awkward cockiness coupled with a constant stream of references to canonical nerd material, from the aforementioned Lord of the Rings and Star Wars to Harry Potter and X-Men. Including, at the risk of a spoiler, literally my favorite use of “may the force be with you” in all of film, including the OT.[1] At one point he almost gets himself killed with a poorly chosen Mr. Miyagi quote, but it’s not a joke at his expense. He reads to me as a “for us, by us” representation — if the writers and/or the actor don’t identify as nerds, somebody is really convincingly faking it.

Jane Gloriana Villanueva, Jane the Virgin


I conceived of this post when I was still in season 1 of Jane the Virgin. Even though I relate to Jane as a fellow nerd, I wasn’t completely sure it was right to claim her this way publicly. Whereas Birkhoff and Willow are clearly delineated by the scripts as their respective shows’ Designated Nerds — Birkhoff is literally nicknamed “Nerd” by Nikita — Jane is not explicitly so constructed. Was I “calling her a nerd,” then? (This used to be rude.)


Season 2 fully cleared that up as all the relevant features of Jane’s personality came into clearer focus. Between her late-night informational internet binges, her anxiety around school success (she’s working on a creative writing degree), her urgent need to get everything right, her tendency to overthink things, and her not even playing it a little bit cool around her father’s celebrity friends (see below), it was settled. And then, oh, right, she’s a virgin, deep into her twenties.

All of these are important aspects of Jane’s story and/or personality, but none of them pigeonhole her.

I think that’s the unifying theme of this blog post. Being a nerd is not a limitation on what’s possible in terms of the range of human experience. Nerds are not a homogeneous bunch — we are not even homogeneous internally as individuals. TV doesn’t always recognize this, but when it does, it’s glorious.

Runners up!

Cosima Niehaus, Orphan Black

While for me Cosima doesn’t quite meet the “for us, by us” standard set by Birkhoff, it still feels worth celebrating that we now have an earnestly-geeked-out-on-science character who is also “the hot one”.

Brian Krakow, My So-Called Life

My So-Called Life is a classic show for a reason. Every one of the characters had an interior life that was more richly and empathetically rendered than any prior teen show that I know of. From Angela Chase (to this date, Claire Danes’ greatest work imho) to Rickie Vasquez to Rayanne Graff, Jordan Catalano, Sharon Cherski, and the resident nerdy neighbor Brian Krakow, nobody was denied a point of view.

It’s not possible to overstate how much I identified with Brian when I was 18. I kind of felt like he was literally based on me. I’m putting him here in the “runners up” only because I’ve changed so much, and my historical identification with Brian reflects limitations in how I saw myself.

I guess that’s the point of all of this. Nerdy or not, humans are infinite. May TV reflect this infinitude.


[1] (a) Do not look this up on Youtube! It needs to be appreciated in context. If you’re curious, watch the entirety of season 2. (b) I suspect there are those who would question my nerd cred for suggesting that my favorite use of MtFBWY occurs elsewhere than the OT. Now, I forcefully reject the notion of “nerd cred.” An exclusionary posture about nerddom is both limiting (cf. the rest of this blog post) and a singularly bad look on people who have ever felt excluded. Nonetheless, I am happy to establish mine. Saying your favorite MtFBWY occurs outside the OT is kind of like saying that your favorite lightsaber fight is RvD2. You say it in the full acknowlegement that whatever you’re naming as your favorite owes its whole existence to the OT. Happy now? 😉

Pershan’s Essay on Cognitive Load Theory

Just a note to point you to Michael Pershan’s motherf*cking gorgeous essay on the history of cognitive load theory, centered on its trailblazer, John Sweller.

Read it now.

I’m serious.

I tend to think of Sweller as, like, “that *sshole who thinks he can prove that it’s bad for learning if you think hard.”

On the other hand, any thoughtful teacher with any experience has seen students get overwhelmed by the demands of a problem and lose the forest for the trees, so you know that he’s talking about a real thing.

Michael has just tied it together for me, tracing how Sweller’s point of view was born and evolved, what imperatives it comes from, other researchers who take cognitive load theory in related and different directions, where their imperatives come from, and how Sweller’s relationship to these other directions has evolved as well. I have more empathy for him now, a better sense of his stance, and a better sense of why I see things so differently.

Probably the biggest surprise for me was seeing the connection between Sweller’s point of view on learning, and the imperatives he is beholden to as a scientist. I get so annoyed at the limited scope of his theory of learning, but apparently he defends this choice of scope on the grounds that it supports the scientific rigor of the work. I understand why he sees it that way.

The remaining confusion I have is why the Sweller of Michael’s account, ultimately so clear on the limited scope of his work (“not a theory of everything”) and the methodological reasons for this limited scope, nonetheless seems to feel so empowered to use it to talk about what is happening in schools and colleges. (See this for an example.) Relatedly, I’m having trouble reconciling this careful scientific-methodology-motivated scope limitation with Sweller’s stated goal (as quoted by Michael) to support the creation of new instructional techniques. The problem I’m having is this:

Is his real interest in supporting the work of the classroom or isn’t it?

If it is, well, then this squares both with the fact that he says it is, and that he’s so willing to jump into debates about instructional design as it is implemented in real classrooms. But it doesn’t square with rigorously limiting the scope of his theory, entirely avoiding conversations about obviously-relevant factors like motivation and productive difficulty, which he says he’s doing for reasons of scientific rigor, as in this quote:

Here is a brief history of germane cognitive load. The concept was introduced into CLT to indicate that we can devise instructional procedures that increase cognitive load by increasing what students learn. The problem was that the research literature immediately filled up with articles introducing new instructional procedures that worked and so were claimed to be due to germane cognitive load. That meant that all experimental results could be explained by CLT rendering the theory unfalsifiable. The simple solution that I use now is to never explain a result as being due to factors unrelated to working memory.

On the other hand, if his interest is purely in science, in mapping The Truth about the small part of the learning picture he’s chosen to focus on, then why does he claim he’s doing it all for the sake of instruction, and why does he feel he has something to say about the way instructional paradigms are playing out inside live classrooms?

Michael, help me out?

Hard Problems and Hints

I have a friend O with a very mathematically engaged son J, who semi-often corresponds with me about his and J’s mathematical experiences together. We had a recent exchange and what I was saying to him I found myself wanting to say to everybody. So, without further ado, here is his email and my reply (my take on Aunt Pythia) –

Dear Ben,

J’s class is learning about volume in math. They’ll be working with cubes, rectangular prisms and possibly cylinders, but that’s all. He asked his teacher if he could work on a “challenge” that has been on his mind, which is to find a formula for the volume of one of his favorite shapes, the dodecahedron. He build a few of these out of paper earlier in the year and really was/is fascinated with them. I think he began this quest to find the volume thinking that it would be pretty much impossible, but he has stuck with it for almost a week now. I am pleased to see that he’s not only sticking with it, but also that he has made a few pretty interesting observations along the way, including coming up with an approach to solving it that involves, as he put it, “breaking it up into equal pieces of some simpler shape and then putting them together.” After trying a few ways to break/slice up the dodecahedron and finding that none of them seemed to make matters simpler, he had an “ah ha” moment in the car and decided that the way to do would be to break it up into 12 “pentagonal pyramids” (that’s what he calls them) that fit together, meeting at the center of rotation of the whole shape. If we can find the volume of one of those things, we’re all set. A few days later, he told me that he realized that “not every pentagonal pyramid could combine to make a dodecahedron” so maybe there was something special about the ones that do, i.e., maybe there is a special relationship between the length of the side of the pentagon and the length of the edge of the pyramid that could be used to form a dodecahedron.

He is still sticking with it, and seems to be having a grand time, so I am definitely going to encourage him and puzzle through it with him if he wants.

But here’s my question for you…

I sneaked a peak on google to see what the formula actually is, and found (as you might know) that it’s pretty complicated. The formula for the volume of the pentagonal pyramid involves \tan 54 (or something horrible like that) and the formula for the volume of a dodecahedron involves 15 + 7\sqrt{5} or something evil like that. In short, I am doubtful that he will actually be able to solve this problem he’s puzzling through. What does a good teacher do in such a situation? You have a student who is really interested in this problem, but you know that it’s far more likely that he will hit a wall (or many walls) that he really doesn’t have the tools to work through. On the other hand, you really want him to find satisfaction in the process and not measure the joy or the value of the process by whether he ultimately solves it.

I certainly don’t care whether he solves it or not. But I want to help him get value out of hitting the wall. How do you strike a balance so that the challenge is the right level of frustrating? When is it good to “give a hint” (you’ve done that for me a few times in what felt like a good way… not too much, but just enough so that the task was possible).

In this case, he’s at least trying to answer a question that has an answer. I suppose you could find a student working on a problem that you know has NO known answer, or that has been proven to be unsolvable. Although there, at least, after the student throws up his hands after giving it a good go, you can comfort her by saying, “guess what… you’re in good company!” But here, I’d like to help give him some of the tools he might use to actually make some headway, without giving away the store.

I think he’s off to a really good start — learning a lot along the way – getting a lot of out the process, the approach. I can already tell that many of the “ah ha” moments have applicability in all sorts of problems, so that’s wonderful.

Best, O

Dear O,

Wow, okay first of all, I love that you asked me this and it makes me really appreciate your role in this journey J is on, in other words I wish every child had an adult present in their mathematical journey who recognizes the value in their self-driven exploration and is interested in being the guardian of the child’s understanding of that value.

Second: no matter what happens, you have access to the “guess what… you’re in good company” response, because the experience of hitting walls as you try to find your way through the maze of the truth is literally the experience of all research mathematicians, nearly all of the time. If by any chance J ends up being a research mathematician, he will spend literally 99% or more of his working life in this state.

In fact, I would want to tweak the message a bit; I find the “guess what… you’re in good company” a tad consolation-prize-y (as also expressed by the fact that you described it as a “comfort”). It implies that there was an underlying defeat whose pain this message is designed to ameliorate. I want to encourage you and J both to see this situation as one in which a defeat is not even possible, because the goal is to deepen understanding, and that is definitely happening, regardless of the outcome. The specific question (“what’s the volume of a dodecahedron?”) is a tool that’s being used to give the mind focus and drive in exploring the jungle of mathematical reality, but the real value is the journey, not the answer to the question. The question is just a tool to help the mind focus.

In fairness, questing for a goal such as finding the answer to a question and then not meeting the goal is always a little disappointing, and I’m not trying to act like that disappointment can be escaped through some sort of mental jiu-jitsu. What I am trying to say is that it is possible to experience this disappointment as superficial, because the goal-quest is an exciting and focusing activity that expresses your curiosity, but the goal is not the container of the quest’s value.

So, that’s what you tell the kid. Way before they hit any walls. More than that, that’s how you should see it, and encourage them to see it that way by modeling.

Third. A hard thing about being in J’s position in life (speaking from experience) is that the excitement generated in adults by his mathematical interests and corresponding “advancement” is exciting and heady, but can have the negative impact of encouraging him to see the value of what he’s doing in terms of it making him awesome rather than the exploration itself being the awesome thing, and this puts him in the position where it is possible for an unsuccessful mathematical expedition to be very ego-challenging. This is something that’s been behind a lot of the conversations we’ve had, but I want to highlight it here, to connect the dots in the concrete situation we’re discussing. To the extent that there are adults invested in J’s mathematical precociousness per se, and to the extent that J may experience an unsuccessful quest as a major defeat, these two things are connected.

Fourth, to respond to your request for concrete advice regarding when it is a good idea to give a hint. Well, there is an art to this, but here are some basic principles:

* Hints that are minimally obtrusive allow the learner to preserve their sense of ownership over the final result. The big dangers with a hint are (a) that you steal the opportunity to learn by removing a part of the task that would have been important to the learning experience, and (b) that you steal the experience of success because the learner doesn’t feel like they really did it. These dangers are related but distinct.

* How do you give a minimally obtrusive hint?

(a) Hints that direct the learner’s attention to a potentially fruitful avenue of thought are superior to hints that are designed to give the learner a new tool.

(b) Hints that are designed to facilitate movement in the direction of thought the learner already has going on are generally better than hints that attempt to steer the learner in a completely new direction.

* If the learner does need a new tool, this should be addressed explicitly. It’s kind of disingenuous to think of it as a “hint” – looking up “hint” in the dictionary just now, I’m seeing words like “indirect / suggestion / covert indication”. If the learner is missing a key tool, they need something direct. The best scenario is if they can actually ask for what they need:

Learner: If I only had a way to find the length of this side using this angle…
Teacher: oh yes, there’s a whole body of techniques for that, it’s called trigonometry.

This is rare but that’s okay because it’s not necessary. If the teacher sees that the learner is up against the lack of a certain tool, they can also elicit the need for it from the learner:

Teacher: It seems like you’re stuck because you know this angle but you don’t know this side.
Learner: Yeah.
Teacher: What if I told you there was a whole body of techniques for that?

Okay, those are my four cents. Keep me posted on this journey, it sounds like a really rich learning experience for J.

All the best, Ben

Deborah Ball and Lucy West are F*cking Masters

I recently saw some video from Deborah Ball’s Elementary Mathematics Laboratory. I actually didn’t know what she looked like so I didn’t find out till afterward that the teacher in the video was, y’know, THE Deborah Ball, but already from watching, I was thinking,


It put me in mind of a professional development workshop I attended 2 years ago which was run by Lucy West. Both Ball and West displayed a level of adeptness at getting students to engage with one another’s reasoning that blew me away.

One trick both of them used was to consistently ask students to summarize one another’s train of thought. This set up a classroom norm that you are expected to follow and be able to recapitulate the last thoughts that were said, no matter who they are coming from. Both Ball and West explicitly articulated this norm as well as implicitly backing it up by asking students (or in West’s case, teachers in a professional development setting) to do it all the time. In both cases, the effect was immediate and powerful: everybody was paying attention to everybody else.

The benefit wasn’t just from a management standpoint. There’s something both very democratic and very mathematically sound about this. In the first place, it says that everybody’s thoughts matter. In the second, it says that reasoning is the heart of what we’re doing here.

I resolve to start employing this technique whenever I have classroom opportunities. I know that it’ll come out choppy at first, but I’ve seen the payoff and it’s worth it.

A nuance of the technique is to distinguish summarizing from evaluating. In the Ball video, the first student to summarize what another student said also wanted to say why he thought it was wrong; Ball intercepted this and kept him focused on articulating the reasoning, saving the evaluation step until after the original train of thought had been clearly explicated. Which brings me to a second beautiful thing she did.

Here was the problem:

What fraction of the big rectangle is blue?
What fraction of the big rectangle is blue?

The first student to speak argued that the blue triangle represents half because there are two equal wholes in the little rectangle at the top right.

He is, of course, wrong.

On the other hand, he is also, of course, onto something.

It was with breathtaking deftness that Deborah Ball proceeded to facilitate a conversation that both

(a) clearly acknowledged the sound reasoning behind his answer


(b) clarified that he missed something key.

It went something like this. I’m reconstructing this from memory so of course it’s wrong in the details, but in overall outline this is what happened –

Ball: Who can summarize what [Kid A] said?

Kid B: He said it’s half, but he’s just looking at the, he’s just…

Ball: It’s not time to say what you think of his reasoning yet, first we have to understand what he said.

Kid B: Oh.

Kid C: He’s saying that the little rectangle has 2 equal parts and the blue is one of them.

Ball [to Kid A]: Is that what you’re saying?

Kid A: Yeah.

Ball: So, what was the whole you were looking at?

Kid A [points to the smaller rectangle in the upper right hand corner]

Ball: And what were the two parts?

Kid A [points to the blue triangle and its complement in the smaller rectangle]

Ball: And are they equal?

Kid A: Yes.

Ball [to the rest of the class]: So if this is the whole [pointing at the smaller rectangle Kid A highlighted], is he right that it’s 1/2?

Many students: Yes.

Ball: The question was asking something a little different from that. Who can say what the whole in the question was?

Kid D [comes to the board and outlines the large rectangle with her finger]

Kid A: Oh.

I loved this. This is how you do it! Right reasoning has been brought to the fore, wrong reasoning has been brought to the fore, nobody feels dumb, and the class stays focused on trying to understand, which is what matters anyway.

My Former Students Are Grown-*ss Folks

When I started out, veteran teachers at my school said to me, “you won’t really understand what you’re contributing until your students grow up and come back as adults.” I didn’t really understand what they were saying because it sounded unfathomably distant in the future.

But I am beginning to find out.

It’s just starting to sink in that the kids I taught in 2001-2, who were then high school freshmen, are now about 1 year older than I was when I taught them. The ones I taught in 2002-3 are 1 year younger.


Example: I just had an email exchange with one of my 2002-3 students, who is now involved in math education (!) working for the Young People’s Project. This is the second former student I know of to get involved in math education. *Proud.* I would go so far as to say, *kvelling.*

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.