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Little Scientists Can Teach You A Lot

11 Sep

Two students were in the science lab this morning doing “experiments” with vinegar, baking soda, corn starch,Scientists dish soap, food coloring, and who knows what else. They looked quite serious with their safety goggles, beakers, and test tubes. Soon a handful of inspired younger students rushed up to me and asked if they could be certified to use the lab equipment. They stared at me patiently as I read the rules. And then they nodded their heads vigorously when I repeatedly emphasized that it was everyone’s responsibility to clean up.

Since a few of the students are fairly new to the school, I thought it would be nice to do some activity with them so that they could get comfortable with the materials in the lab. I asked them if they would like to make cornstarch goo and they all agreed.  Soon there were oohs and aahs coming from the new little scientists along with lots of giggles. A few more students joined in and I almost became overwhelmed trying to contain the mess. There was goo all over the table and on the floor, cornstarch tracks on some of the rugs, and a pile of dirty bowls, dishes, and utensils. Thankfully, after about twenty minutes or so, the students were ready to move on. I sent them to the hose outside to wash their hands, which were dripping with goo, while I stayed behind to clean up.

Now, my story could end here and it would all be about how wonderful I was to engage these young minds and teach them some science (the properties of non-Newtonian fluids) while having lots of fun. Well, this is not the best part of the story…

The cleaning took me longer than expected, but I was enjoying the quiet break. Suddenly all the young scientists returned to the lab and began their experiments anew. “Oh, no. This is going to be a disaster,” I thought to myself, but I kept my head down and tried not to pay too much attention. I was determined to finish up and leave before the lab was trashed again. Well, I was in for a pleasant surprise. The two original students quickly took charge and guided the younger students. They suggested combinations of ingredients and showed them things like how to use a straw to make bubbles. When one of the younger students spilled their solution on the floor, an older one dashed off and reappeared with a towel to put under her feet. There were also many gentle reminders about being careful, keeping things in order, and cleaning up after oneself.

The thing that surprised me the most, besides the fact that no one ever asked for my help, was how serious and calm the entire scene felt. I would occasionally hear proud exclamations of, “Look what I did!” or “I make the best experiments!” but overall everyone was very focused. After almost an hour, one of the younger students, who had just been certified, came to ask if I would check the lab. She wanted to know if they had cleaned up properly. I was startled to find that the lab was spotless! All the equipment had been washed and put away and all of the surfaces had been wiped down. Even the floor was dry. I couldn’t contain my delight. “Wow! It looks beautiful!” The student stood beaming at me, not so much at gaining my approval but more with a look of “I told you we could do it.”

Kids are amazing when you get out of their way. They are often capable of so much more than we expect. I guess I was the student today.

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Free to quit math class

18 May

“You either learn your way toward writing your own script in life, or you unwittingly become an actor in someone else’s script.” ~ John Taylor Gatto

An 11-year-old student recently asked me if we could set up a math class. I asked her why she wanted to study math. She replied, “Because I want to.” Usually this isn’t a good enough reason for me, but I know this student fairly well. She is very private and often takes her time to share what she is really thinking, so we set an appointment for the next day. I wanted to get a sense of where she was mathematically, so we went through the basics – addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, fractions, decimals, place values, and basic geometry. She seemed to have a solid foundation, so I told her we could move on to algebra or go deeper into geometry. She decided to pursue algebra because she felt she already knew a lot of geometry. We agreed to meet four days per week for half an hour.

What a pleasure it has been to work with this student. She always remembers to reserve the room, she is always ready to start on time, and she is always focused. She grasps math concepts quickly and can apply them immediately. I have to admit, for a minute or two I felt like a really good teacher. After a couple of days, however, I realized that I was doing very little teaching. The student already had a strong intuitive sense for math concepts. All I was doing was teaching her the language of math – a number next to a letter means that you multiply the two, a little raised number (an exponent) means that you multiply the base number by itself that many times, etc. I often reminded her that this language is just something invented to help people communicate mathematical thinking to each other.

Algebra also involves the use of variables and writing down the relationship between them. It’s a tool that is helpful in solving more complicated problems. A simple example is 3x + 5 = y. You can plug in a number for x or y and solve for the other variable. Solving for y in this case is fairly easy, but solving for x is a little more complicated. Learning algebra involves learning the steps to solve for x and y. I should add that these are the steps that I have to follow to solve a problem like this. And this is how most others have to do it too. But this student solves problems like this in her head!

At first I attempted to teach her some of the algebra “tricks” – isolate the variable, do to one side of the equation what you do to the other, etc. – and show her how to write these down step by step. After all, I can still hear my middle school math teacher saying, “Show your work.” But the student resisted and I reconsidered. She has an amazing ability to manipulate numbers and variables in her head. Why should I mess with her process? After all, she’s refining a talent that is really hard for most people, a talent that is really useful in areas outside of math.

Thankfully, I don’t take any pride in my “gifted” student’s math abilities. I sometimes think about what could happen to her in a more traditional education setting. I am sure that her math skills would be noted and rewarded, maybe even with trophies. She might even begin to believe that math is her “thing” – she’s good at it, most others think that math is the most important subject, and she often hears about the need for more scientists and engineers in the media. But is math really her passion? Does she really like it? And more importantly, is math her ticket to a happy life?

The student and I are still enjoying the class, but when and if she gets bored or her interest wanes, I will support her in moving on to something else and I’ll be happy that she is confident enough to do so.

This blog post was partly inspired by this TED video by John Bennett – Why Math Instruction is Unnecessary – and this Psychology Today blog post by Peter Gray – The Most Basic Freedom is Freedom to Quit.