Math, Democracy, Equality, and Classroom Culture

This is a contribution to Sam Shah‘s Virtual Conference on Humanizing Mathematics.

As a secondary matter, it fits into my series of posts exploring the relationship of math to democracy.

One aspect of this exploration has been experimenting with explicitly framing mathematical knowledge building with students as a democratic process, analogous to being part of a democratic polity. In a democracy, at least according to the ideal, the direction of the polity is determined by its members, all having an equal say. In the same way, I’ve been striving to build a way of working with students in which they see the knowledge as determined by themselves engaged in a collective process in which they are all equal participants, substantially inspired by Jason Cushner and Sarah Bertucci’s Consensus Is the Answer Key.[1]

My interest is in having students walk away from mathematical experiences knowing that math is nothing more mysterious than communities of humans trying to figure things out together; that the process that led to all mathematical knowledge is something they, and anyone, can participate in; that they can be the authors of such knowledge. That they are entitled to a say in what the community they are part of believes about math, and that their own sense of what to believe benefits by being part of a community thoughtfully working together to try to figure things out.

I hope these overall goals give you a sense of why I wanted to write about this as part of the Virtual Conference on Humanizing Mathematics: while math is often seen as some kind of disembodied and strangely history-less ancient wisdom handed down by specially-anointed priests (“math teachers”), themselves entrusted with it by an even higher priesthood (“mathematicians”), the truth is that it is nothing but the product of humans trying to figure things out together, and I want this to be what students experience it as.

While I do plan in the future on writing about the specific instructional protocols I’ve been exploring to accomplish this, I’m going to keep the scope limited here, and tell you just one story, about a time when the frame of “democracy” unexpectedly gave me a new resource in handling a situation to do with classroom culture that I priorly would have found challenging.

In 2017 I tried my first experiment building a whole learning experience around the math-knowledge-building-as-a-democratic-process metaphor. (It was a course at BEAM.) On the first day I explained that mathematical knowledge is democratic in character[2] and that they would be working democratically as a community to decide what’s true. They bought in.

They were working through something, I no longer remember what. C asked a question or made an argument and A replied. A’s reply was mathematical and on topic, but his tone was a little condescending. Just a little, but it was there.

This is a type of situation in which I’ve historically found it a little hard to exercise my authority to move the classroom culture in a positive direction. I don’t want a room in which it’s okay for people to be condescending to each other. That’s a recipe for the class to start to feel emotionally unsafe. On the other hand, I’ve often had trouble finding a way of intervening in this type of situation that would have felt fair to A. If I said, “that was disrespectful,” well, perhaps it was, a little, but it was also on topic and advanced the conversation, and, well, “disrespectful” is a powerful word. Furthermore, this intervention would not have been very actionable for A: the thing I didn’t like was not located in his choice of words, but in a subtle tone thing. If he felt defensive at all (and who wouldn’t?), it would be difficult for him even to perceive what he had done that was being criticized; how would he correct it?

I think some teachers deftly handle this type of situation using light-touch humor, but that has always been a difficult tool for me to wield when being corrective. I’m too earnest; it’s hard for me to get that dial just right.

I’ve found myself in situations like this countless times, but this was the first time I had encountered it while teaching a class that had explicitly bought into the idea that they were a democratic community. I found myself, quite to my surprise, with a confident new move:

“A, you’re saying something very interesting, but your tone of voice is a little like you’re the teacher and C is the student. In a democracy, you’re equals. So can you try making that exact same interesting point except from one equal to another?”

And what was beautiful was that he completely, happily, undefensively took it on. In fact, he seemed excited to try. And, he did it! He said the exact same thing, except from one equal to another. The conversation proceeded with a new foundation of safety and mutual respect established.

I knew I wanted to teach them that math was something humans make by coming together as equals and trying to figure stuff out together. I didn’t know this would also give me new moves to support the development of a healthy mathematical culture. Retrospectively, maybe I should have.

Notes

[1] Sarah wrote an essay on this pedagogical principle which unfortunately has never been published, but the link above is a nice description of a session she and Jason and their students led at the Creating Balance conference in 2008.

I’ve been working to develop a community of educators interested in this “math-as-democracy” pedagogy. I facilitated a minicourse and a professional learning team at Math for America this past year on the subject, and James Cleveland, who was part of both, led a session at TMCNYC19. This fall I am co-facilitating another professional learning team on instructional routines, one of which is democracy-focused. If you’re interested in thinking about this circle of ideas with me, get in touch!

[2] I explained the underlying philosophy here, and also see the first minute or so of my TED talk.

Re-invitation

Dylan Kane’s recent post about prerequisite knowledge has me wanting to tell you a story from my very first year in my very first full-time classroom job, which I think I’ve never related on this blog before, although I’ve told it IRL many times.

It was the 2001-2002 school year. I taught four sections of Algebra I. I was creating my whole curriculum from scratch as the school year progressed, because the textbook I had (the UChicago book) wasn’t working in my classes, or really I guess I wasn’t figuring out how to make it work. Late late in the year, end of May/early June, I threw in a 2-week unit on the symmetry group of the equilateral triangle. I had myself only learned this content the prior year, in a graduate abstract algebra course that the liaison from the math department to the ed department had required of me in order to sign off on my teaching degree, since I hadn’t been a math major. (Aside: that course changed my life. I now have a PhD in algebra. But that’s another story for another time.)

Since it was an Algebra I class, the cool tie-in was that you can solve equations in the group, exactly in the way that you solve simple equations with numbers. So, I introduced them to the group, showed them how to construct its Cayley table, and had them solving equations in there. There was also a little art project with tracing paper where they drew something and then acted on it with the group, so that the union of the images under the action had the triangle’s symmetry. Overall, the students found the unit challenging, since the idea of composing transformations is a profound abstraction.

In subsequent years, I mapped out the whole course in more detail beforehand, and once I introduced that level of detail into my planning I never felt I could afford the time to do this barely-curricular-if-awesome unit. But something happened, when I did it that first and only time, that stuck with me ever since.

I had a student, let’s call her J, who was one of the worst-performing (qua academic performace) students I ever taught. Going into the unit on the symmetry group, she had never done any homework and practically never broke 20% on any assessment.

It looked from my angle like she was just choosing not to even try. She was my advisee in addition to my Algebra I student, so I did a lot of pleading with her, and bemoaning the situation to her parents, but nothing changed.

Until my little abstract algebra mini-unit! From the first (daily) homework assignment on the symmetry group, she did everything. Perfectly. There were two quizzes; she aced both of them. Across 4 sections of Algebra I, for that brief two-week period, she was one of the most successful students. Her art project was cool too. As I said, this was work that many students found quite challenging; she ate it up.

Then the unit ended and she went back to the type of performance that had characterized her work all year till then.

I lavished delight and appreciation on her for her work during that two weeks. I could never get a satisfying answer from her about why she couldn’t even try the rest of the time. But my best guess is this:

That unit, on some profound mathematics they don’t even usually tell you about unless you major in math in college, was the single solitary piece of curriculum in the entire school year that did not tap the students’ knowledge of arithmetic. Could it be that J was shut out of the curriculum by arithmetic? And when I presented her with an opportunity to stretch her mind around

  • composition of transformations,
  • formal properties of binary operations,
  • and a deep analogy between transformations and numbers,

but not to

  • do any +,-,*,/ of any numbers bigger than 3,

she jumped on it?

Is mathematics fundamentally sequential, or do we just choose to make it so? I wonder what a school math curriculum would look like if it were designed to minimize the impact of prerequisite knowledge, to help every concept feel accessible to every student. – Dylan Kane

Acknowledgement: I’ve framed this post under the title “Re-invitation”. I’m not 100% sure but I believe I got this word from the Illustrative Mathematics curriculum, which is deliberately structured to allow students to enter and participate in the math of each unit and each lesson without mastery over the “prerequisites”. For example, there is a “preassessment” before every unit, but even if you bomb the preassessment, you will still be able to participate in the unit’s first few lessons.

A Thought on First Days

One of the ideas I’ve encountered in my wanderings that has ultimately been most useful to me in shaping my teaching is about the needs of students on day 1. It’s this:

Students come to the first day of class with a number of important questions. They almost never ask you these questions out loud, and they are often at most barely conscious of them. But how you respond to these questions will have a very significant impact on how the class goes.

The questions are things like:

Do you know a lot about this subject?

Can you teach me effectively?

Will I feel safe and supported here?

Do you believe in me?

Different students have different questions, and it often happens that an effective way to respond to one student’s question is an ineffective answer to another’s. Nonetheless, it’s not hopeless to try to figure out something useful about what questions are dominant in a given class and how to respond to them effectively.

I forget where I first heard this idea. I remember thinking about it a lot during my 4th year in the classroom, in conversation with a particular colleague I’ll call Leslie.

In those long-ago days, I taught:

* Algebra I to 9th graders
* Algebra II to 11th and 12th graders
* AP Calculus AB to mostly 12th graders

I struggled a lot with classroom management with the 9th graders. I almost never had any management problems with the 11th or 12th graders. This was not about “strong” vs. “weak” students: on average, the Algebra II kids were the “weakest.” My in-the-trenches conclusion was that 9th graders are just hard.

Leslie was a history teacher. Like me she taught mostly 9th graders and 12th graders. I was extremely surprised when she told me that she got along great with the 9th graders and was in an epic struggle with the 12th graders.

She eventually resolved it, but I remember being extremely confused and curious when she first told me about the difficulty. Twelfth graders, acting like that? I don’t remember what I asked or what she said. But my takeaway was something like this:

“I like math; I know a lot of math; I work very hard to make lessons clear, creative and engaging. I’m curious about kids and excited about their thoughts, and I will spend a lot of extra time with you to try to understand your mind and help you understand the content. On the other hand, I do not like it when students don’t cooperate with my plans or engage with the lesson I worked so hard on, and I wish they would just cooperate and engage.”

“9th graders are developmentally different from adults. Though they are anxious to be seen as grown-up, they still find it difficult to self-regulate their emotions. In this context, a family of questions they have for their teacher on day 1 is, ‘how will you help me stay focused when I find this difficult? how will you help me self-regulate? will you keep us all safe from undue disruption stemming from ourselves’ and each others’ difficult feelings?’

“I have up to now been bad at responding effectively to this suite of questions. I have resented and wished-would-go-away the part of my job that is about helping students stay in control of themselves. I am sure the 9th graders sense the implied power vacuum. They probably find it terrifying. They want to know class will be happy and productive, and they find out the answer is, ‘only if I, and all of my peers, simultaneously, spontaneously stay focused and positive for the whole period.’ Yeah right.

“Meanwhile, Leslie understands and enjoys this part of her job. Her 9th graders relax quickly as they learn what she is willing to do, happily, to make sure they as a community stay their best, most productive selves.

“On the other hand, 12th graders are much closer to being adults. They self-regulate much more easily. They don’t need you to prove to them what you can do to help them with that. On the other hand, they are anxious to know that you are not on a power trip and that their time won’t be wasted.

“In this context, the deal I was subconsciously offering — I know this stuff really well and I’ll work really hard to help you learn it; I won’t condescend to you about how to act, but I need you to cooperate and engage without much structural help from me — actually probably sounded like a great deal to 12th graders. They were ready to do the self-regulating without me, and I probably implicitly answer the questions ‘do you know your sh*t?’ and ‘can you help me learn it?’ very quickly in the affirmative. That explains why their affect was always like, ‘ok, cool, let’s go.’

“On the other hand, from what Leslie is telling me, she did not successfully reassure her 12th graders that she knows her sh*t early on. She does in fact know her sh*t, but somehow they didn’t get that sense at the beginning, and eventually went into open rebellion. Probably sexism was involved; who knows what the whole story is. But, for whatever reason, that question did not get successfully answered, and it led to a big problem.”

I have no idea if any of that is the truth. But it seemed to explain the puzzle to me, to fit my experience and my colleague’s story, and has shaped my thinking about what needs to happen on day 1 ever since.

All of this was at the front of my mind not too long ago when I started a new class in a new context. It was an advanced college level math course, and I had been told that the students had taken a full sequence of prerequisite courses but that their grounding in that content was uneven. Having been told this, it was hard to plan anything and feel confident it would be appropriate. Would it be too easy and they’d feel condescended to? Too hard and they’d be lost? I was really stuck on this.

I reached out to the students for info: “what do you know about X subject?” My first inquiry went unanswered for weeks. I followed up. One of them said, “To answer your question I’d need to look at my previous syllabi.” I asked an administrator for help with this and they turned up several syllabi. A few more days went by with no word, so I followed up again. A second student wrote back: “Every professor has a different idea about these courses. Maybe if you tell us what you want us to know, we can tell you if we know it.” I replied, listing specific topics. Nothing, for a few more days. With the class beginning the next day, I wrote one last time: “Now’s your last chance to tell me something about what you know before we get going. Can you reply to that list I sent before?”

Another student wrote back to the effect of, “Look, we have taken numerous classes before. Nothing on this list is foreign to us. Our mastery over specifics will vary from topic to topic.”

This email told me so much. I mean, it told me almost nothing in terms of their actual background — how that mastery varies from topic to topic was exactly what I had been asking. And yet, it told me just what I needed to know to make the planning decisions that had been tripping me up.

These folks need to know I stand ready to challenge them!

Underneath that, I supposed they might be anxious to know I planned to take their minds seriously. And my attempts to get some orientation for myself could have exacerbated that anxiety! My “are you familiar with X?” questions had all been about content they were supposed to have seen before! If indeed they were concerned I might not think they were up to a challenge, perhaps these questions had fed that concern. (This would at least be a plausible explanation for their slow and unforthcoming responses.)

So, I felt I knew what question I had to answer on day 1. I put together a lecture full of rich, hard content, outlining a grand sweep for the whole semester. I erred on the side of more and grander content. During class itself, I erred on the side of telling them more stuff, rather than probing what they were making of it. I wanted the experience to say, “I know you are not here to play, and neither am I. We are going to go as far as you’re ready to. Maybe farther.”

At the end of class, I mentioned to the student who’d sent the email that I’d enjoyed its tone of “c’mon now, bring it!” He smiled, like, “yeah, you know it.”

The course is behind us now. In fact, that first day was the fastest, most content-packed day of the class. It is not generally my style to construct class in a way that pushes forward without much information about what sense the students are making of the ideas. Once the students became willing to show me what they actually knew and didn’t know, it was possible to properly tailor the course, and we were able to drill down on key points and really get into what they were thinking. To be clear, it didn’t get any easier — I would say it actually got harder and harder over the course of the semester. By the end we were line-by-line in the thick of intricate, pages-long proofs. But we never again zoomed forward at the breakneck pace of that first day.

That said, with hopefully due respect to the fact that I haven’t had this conversation with the students directly, I do believe it was the right choice for day 1. A different first class might have been a little closer to what the rest of the semester would look like minute by minute, but it wouldn’t have spoken to the question I believed then and still believe that my students really needed answered.

By the same token, for different students, it could have been exactly the wrong choice. If my students’ incoming burning question had been, “are you willing to meet me where I am?,” then that first lesson could have come across like, “no, not even a little bit,” and we might have had a real long semester. And I honestly did not know which question my students had! This is why I’m grateful to the one who emailed me to say, “Look, we’ve done a lot.” That told me what I needed to know.

“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.

Teaching proof writing

I’m at BEAM 7 (formerly SPMPS) right now. I just taught a week-long, 18 hour course on number theory to 11 awesome middle schoolers. I’ve done this twice before, in 2013 and 2014. (Back then it was 20 hrs, and I totally sorely missed those last two!) The main objective of the course is some version of Euclid’s proof of the infinitude of the primes. In the past, what I’ve gotten them to do is to find the proof and convince themselves of its soundness in a classroom conversation. I actually wrote a post 4 years ago in which I recounted how (part of) the climactic conversation went.

This year, about halfway through, I found myself with an additional goal: I wanted them to write down proofs of the main result and the needed lemmas, in their own words, in a way a mathematician would recognize as complete and correct.

I think this happened halfway through the week because until then I had never allowed myself to fully acknowledge how separate a skill this is from constructing a proof and defending its soundness in a classroom conversation.

At any rate, this was my first exercise in teaching students how to workshop a written proof since the days before I really understood what I was about as an educator, and I found a structure that worked on this occasion, so I wanted to share it.

Let me begin with a sample of final product. This particular proof is for the critical lemma that natural numbers have prime factors.

Theorem: All natural numbers greater than 1 have at least one prime factor.

Proof: Let N be any natural number > 1. The factors of N will continue descending as you keep factoring non-trivially. Therefore, the factoring of the natural number will stop at some point, since the number is finite.

If the reader believes that the factoring will stop, it has to stop at a prime number since the factoring cannot stop at a composite because a composite will break into more factors.

Since the factors of N factorize down to prime numbers, that prime is also a factor of N because if N has factor Y and Y has a prime factor, that prime factor is also a factor of N. (If a\mid b and b\mid c then a\mid c.)

There was a lot of back and forth between them, and between me and them, to produce this, but all the language came from them, except for three suggestions I made, quite late in the game:

1) I suggested the “Let N be…” sentence.
2) I suggested the “Therefore” in the first paragraph.
3) I suggested the “because” in the last paragraph. (Priorly, it was 2 separate sentences.)

Here’s how this was done.

First, they had to have the conversation where the proof itself was developed. This post isn’t especially about that part, so I’ll be brief. I asked them if a number could be so big none of its factors were prime. They said, no, this can’t happen. I asked them how they knew. They took a few minutes to hash it out for themselves and their argument basically amounted to, “well, even if you factor it into composite numbers, these themselves will have prime factors, so QED.” I then expressed that because of my training, I was aware of some possibilities they might not have considered, so I planned on honoring my dissatisfaction until they had convinced me they were right. I proceeded to press them on how they knew they would eventually find prime factors. It took a long time but they eventually generated the substance of the proof above. (More on how I structure this kind of conversation in a future post.)

I asked them to write it down and they essentially produced only the following two sentences:

1. The factoring of the natural number will stop at a certain point, since the number is finite.
2. If X (natural) has a factor Y, and Y has a prime factor, that prime factor is also a factor of X.

This was the end product of a class period. Between this one and the next was when it clicked for me that I wanted proof writing to be a significant goal. It was clear that they had all the parts of the argument in mind, at least collectively if not individually. But many of the ideas and all of the connective tissue were missing from their class-wide written attempt. On the one hand, given how much work they had already put in, I felt I owed it to them to help them produce a complete, written proof that would stand up to time and be legible to people outside the class. On the other, I was wary to insert myself too much into the process lest I steal any of their sense of ownership over the finished product. How to scaffold the next steps in a way that gave them a way forward, and led to something that would pass muster outside the class, but left ownership in their hands?

Here’s what I tried, which at least on this occasion totally worked. (Quite slowly, fyi.)

I began with a little inspirational speech about proof writing:

Proof writing is the power to force somebody to believe you, who doesn’t want to.

The point of this speech was to introduce a character into the story: The Reader. The important facts about The Reader are:

(1) They are ornery and skeptical. They do not want to believe you. They will take any excuse you give them to stop listening to you and dismiss what you are saying.

(2) If you are writing something down that you talked about earlier, your reader was not in the room when you talked about it.

Having introduced this character, I reread their proof to them and exposed what The Reader would be thinking. I also wrote it down on the board for them to refer to:

1. The factoring of the natural number will stop at a certain point, since the number is finite.

(a) What does finiteness of the number have to do with the conclusion that the factoring will stop? (b) Why do you believe the numbers at which the factoring stops will be prime?

2. If X (natural) has a factor Y, and Y has a prime factor, that prime factor is also a factor of X.

What does this have to do with anything?

(I don’t have a photo of the board at this stage. I did do The Reader’s voice in a different color.)

Then I let them work as a whole class. I had the students run the conversation completely and decide when they were ready to present their work to The Reader again. In one or two more iterations of this, they came up with all of the sentences in the proof quoted above except for “Let N be…” and minus the “Therefore” and “because” mentioned before. They started to work on deciding an order for the sentences. At this point it seemed clear to me they knew the proof was theirs, so I told them I (not as The Reader but as myself) had a suggestion and asked if I could make it. They said yes, and I suggested which sentence to put first. I also suggested the connecting words and gave my thinking about them. They liked all the suggestions.

This is how it was done. From the first time I gave the reader’s feedback to the complete proof was about 2 hours of hard work.

Let me highlight what for me was the key innovation:

It’s that the feedback was not in the teacher’s (my) voice, but instead in the voice of a character we were all imagining, which acted according to well-defined rules. (Don’t believe the proof unless forced to; and don’t consider any information about what the students are trying to communicate that is not found in the written proof itself.) This meant that at some point I could start to ask, “what do you think The Reader is going to say?” I was trying to avoid the sense that I was lifting the work of writing the proof from them with my feedback, and this mode of feedback seemed to support making progress with the proof while avoiding this outcome.

Postscript:

As you may have guessed, the opening phrase of the sentence “If the reader believes…” in the final proof is an artifact of the framing in terms of The Reader. Actually, at the end, the kids had an impulse to remove this phrase in order to professionalize the sentence. I encouraged them to keep it because I think it frames the logical context of the sentence so beautifully. (I also think it is adorable.)

Think of a Brainy Black Woman in a Hollywood Film

So I’m psyched about Queen of Katwe (Disney), starring Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo, based on the true story of young Ugandan chess champion Phiona Mutesi, which just came out. I’m definitely gonna see it this week.

I am also looking forward to the release this winter of Hidden Figures (20th Century Fox), starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monae, based on the true story of Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and Katherine Johnson, and their foundational mathematical contributions to the US space program. I have never ever ever seen a black female mathematician in a major film before.

This got me thinking: in my entire life up til now, have I ever seen a film released by a major Hollywood studio that centered on a brainy black woman and her brainy pursuits? I’ve been musing on this for about 24 hours now. I thought of exactly one: Akeelah and the Bee.

Can you think of any others?

Update 9/29: I thought of two more candidates. They don’t have that same “this woman is taking over the world with her mind alone” quality as all of the above, but they do have something:

Home (20th Century Fox, 2015): it’s not a major theme of the film, but the generally resourceful and awesome main character, voiced by Rihanna, does at a key point figure out the mechanism of a piece of alien technology while boasting of her “A in geometry”…

A Raisin in the Sun (Columbia Pictures, 1961): Beneatha’s intellectual pretensions don’t exactly drive the plot, but they are pretty central to her character. If you want to see what I mean and are up for being made a little upset, click here (the “in my mother’s house…” scene if you know it).

I want more! Please help!

Update 1/7/17: Having sat on this blog post for a few months now, I feel that the previous update dilutes the point a bit. Akeelah and the Bee, Queen of Katwe, and Hidden Figures, are the only movies of their kind I can think of. (Per the description above: produced by Hollywood, centered on a brainy black woman and her brainy pursuits.) I earnestly want to know if more exist. I am very excited there have been 2 inside of 6 months.

If I ask for “that kind of movie” only without the requirement that the lead be black and female, then we are swimming in them: Good Will Hunting, Theory of Everything, Imitation Game, Beautiful Mind, The Man Who Knew Infinity, Little Man Tate, Searching for Bobby Fischer, … shall I keep going?

For a quick and dirty numerical sample of the status quo: here is a list, compiled by a random IMDB user, of “movies about geniuses.” I found it among the first few hits upon googling “movies about smart people.” On this list I see 35 distinct titles. (The list says 42 but I see 7 repeats.) Of these, by my count the “geniuses” include 32 white boys/men, 1 black man, 1 East Asian man, and 1 white woman.

The fact that I managed, scraping my memory, to find a movie (Home) centered on a black girl who at some point in the film does something cool with her brain, is irrelevant to this stark picture. (This is not a knock on Home, which I loved.) If we want to bring it into the conversation, then we should put it in the context of every movie centered on a character that at some point does something cool with their brain. This is a lot of movies, way too many to make any kind of list.

If I allow the character in question not to be the main character (as in Raisin in the Sun; and if I allow us to leave Hollywood, 2012’s Brooklyn Castle and 2002’s Spellbound come to mind), then we are talking about every movie containing a character with plausible intellectual aspirations. Again, way too many to start listing.

The upshot: representations of brainy black women in (Hollywood) film have been exceedingly, shockingly rare. If you have taught in any place that has black people, you know that brainy black women are not rare in real life. Our national culture has had a very limited imagination in this regard. So let’s all effing go see Hidden Figures as soon as we possibly can. Independent of all this, I’ve heard it’s very good.

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?