math 1

"I'm starving for math problems!!!" -- Noah, in response to my grousing at being expected to come up with math problems at 10:00 pm which is frankly past my bedtime.

Noah likes math. I've been very protective of this. It bothers me when people try to quiz him so they can place some sort of judgment on his abilities, or as a kind of game that they can set up so that they're the "winner" -- showing their cleverness in exposing his ignorance. Or when they try to teach him a certain technique. Both of these things interfere with his internal motivation and enjoyment and intuition. When quizzed he'll get nervous and stutter and his creative brain process shuts down. Suddenly, he's not so brilliant. That might not be apparent to those who aren't around him all the time, but the difference between his reaction to unsolicited questioning and judging and his normal sparkle and enthusiasm and innate genius is huge. It makes me wonder how many like him are not able to realize their potential because of the relentless teaching that goes on in school. He is such a classic example of how teaching can be harmful, and it just kills me that a whole society of people will never see it because the conditions that expose that truth would never be allowed, due to the near universal fear that people won't learn what they need to unless others constantly take them in hand and tell them to learn, and how, and when.

Yesterday he asked me how many seconds are in an hour, because he wanted to know how many seconds it would be until Scott got home from work. Not thinking very hard, I said, "three hundred and sixty." He protested, "That can't be right!" And I sheepishly agreed with him. I can be wrong. It's crucial for the development of their critical reasoning ability that the kids feel safe to question me and disagree with me and mentally work things out for themselves rather than feel they're supposed to just take my word for it and follow my lead unquestioningly.

One of the most damaging effects of school on me was the lesson that it is foolhardy to ask for clarification, and exponentially more so to question the expert's pronouncements, because you will be humiliated whether you're right or wrong. As Ken Robinson points out, children are taught to be afraid of making mistakes, and that is an enormous hindrance to creativity and self-motivation. The expert/novice dynamic is the backbone of the schooling model, and this has behavioral repercussions.

Noah is probably not actually working at "grade level" as the state defines it. But this is meaningless to us; grade standards are arbitrary and the only real benefit is that keeping up with them helps students to continue to keep up with the teacher's pace. The real issue is, what is lost in the demand to hold to an externally-enforced schedule? How many kids are awed when you show them multiplication by the column method on paper, or how to check equality of fractions? When Noah was six it would have been for him no more than rules for making pencil scratchings that happened to please adults. It would have had no meaning for him other than that. But because he's been allowed to roll numbers around in his head for fun, thus allowing him to develop an intuitive understanding of their relationships, math is fascinating to him, wondrous. What a terrible loss it would have been for him, for his brain, not to experience it in that way. Which is one reason why I am adamantly opposed to educational standardization and why I will not permit the state to define "proper" learning for my children.