The Scariest Post I Have Ever Written

I suck at math.  When I was a teacher, I could not state publicly that I sucked at math because it implied that “sucking at math” was a possible human condition, instead of the more optimistic suggestion that for me, math was a window of opportunity I had not yet chosen to open.  Now, though, blogging freely in my own kitchen, I can tell you that when faced with a math problem above third-grade level, my mind instantly goes into a petrified gridlock.

I hate math.  I hate it because of my 8th grade Algebra teacher, a slim, pretty, extremely sarcastic woman whose ice-blue, disdainful gaze I still remember and who seemed to dislike me deeply because I was frequently wrong and, I’m sorry to say, sometimes disruptive, especially as the year wore on and it was clear that I must have been placed in the gifted class through a clerical error. 

I hate math because I just never cared about it.  In a world with so much dazzling beauty, filled with delight and astonishment, where hummingbirds sip nectar from the lavender in my garden, the ocean is not far away and the Kogi truck can always be located, why in the world would I waste even one instant trying to measure the span of an imaginary shape?  Why would I want to contemplate the predicament of two idiots who have taken on some dull task—filling a swimming pool, say, with two garden hoses gushing water in varying amounts at varying velocities—and attempt to calculate how long it will take them, when the answer is clearly: wow, I am so sorry you have to do that.  I used to have to mow my family’s lawn with a rusty hand mower.  Let’s go out for a beer and talk about all the awful, soul-crushing things we’ve done in our lives.  Like math. 

I hate math because it makes me feel stupid.

But that’s not the scary part.  What’s scary is what happened to me yesterday.  In my last post, I talked about my interview with Roger Lowenstein, who felt strongly that technology was going to revolutionize education.  I decided to log onto Khan Academy to test this thesis, taking a class or two myself.

Khan Academy was started by former hedge fund manager Salman Khan. When the videos he made and uploaded to tutor his cousin in math became a viral sensation, he realized he was onto something and started a non-profit.  Khan Academy, whose slogan is “a free world-class education for anyone anywhere” now covers math from third grade through calculus, and has expanded to tutorials in science, economics, computer programming and even humanities.

Despite all of this, Khan’s presentation is endearingly—or deceptively—un-slick.  In the TED talk in which he explains his vision for education, he reads from crumpled post-its he pulls from his pocket and he appears to have a hole in the armpit of his sweater.  His videos seem to be shot off-the-cuff, as if Sal himself is sitting next to you, rambling and scribbling and even, in the case of the World History video, drinking something in gulps so audible that I would not have been surprised if he had burped once or twice.  The mood is friendly.  Khan’s explanations are lucid and swift.

Still, I was unpersuaded.  Yes, the video tutorials are clear and concise.  But why are they any better than a book?  I can see why they’re a helpful backup when practicing a skill, but for a subject like history, I don’t understand why a video lecture on the decay of the Ottoman Empire before World War I is any more accessible just because Khan is talking while he circles a map.  Though in his TED talk, Khan decries in-person lectures as “dehumanizing,” featuring “blank faces” and a “vaguely antagonistic” atmosphere, I would argue that this is true only if the teacher is bad; a good teacher, confronted with blank faces, would slow down, ask questions and explain differently, something a video cannot do.

 I’m unpersuaded that any but highly motivated students would watch a video lecture of significant academic substance outside of school, and that any but proficient students would understand it.  And, of course, a third of my students did not have computers or internet access at home (which is why the LAUSD is spending so much money on iPads, something that is causing a raft of headaches and is not, according to the latest school board meeting, sustainable for any length of time.)

So I was ready to shut the whole Khan Academy thing down and have lunch when I thought…why not put my concerns to the test?  Why not tackle a subject in which I am not motivated and am most certainly below basic?

Why not try to learn some math?

And that’s when things got scary.  Because as soon as I logged onto the math dashboard, I was up to my eyeballs in a frisky, non-judgmental math diagnostic that let me click “I haven’t learned it yet” whenever I hit something I didn’t know, which was pretty much all the time.  I whizzed through that test, obviously, since I knew almost nothing, and then, instead of being faced with an icy stare or worse, the deeply sad, almost hurt bewilderment of my kind-hearted Geometry teacher, there, on my laptop, was my very own personal plan.

Now, as much as I hate math, I love a plan.  A plan is so neat, so hopeful, so possible! The plan did not ask how many times I’d failed Algebra or how old I was or what my problem was or whether I was aware that in the 21st century, if you did not have STEM proficiency you might as well resign from the human race.  It simply listed out, in tiny chunks, what I needed to do next.  Not what a normal person could do, not what I’d be able to do if I had even a shred of intelligence or dignity, but just what I needed to do next.

And so I did it.  The first set was easy.  I’m not going to tell you what it was because unlike Khan Academy, you would judge me.  Trust me when I tell you that Khan Academy was very impressed, showed me a congratulatory screen, and letting me move onto the next level.  This was highly gratifying, because in math, no one ever congratulates me and I never move onto the next level.  Khan Academy never got bored and it never was annoyed when I made arithmetic errors or forgot how to do something I’d known how to do moments earlier.

The problems got harder.  Soon, I was faced with concepts I either never learned or have totally forgotten.  No problem.  Though I could always watch a short video of Sal explaining it to me, I found the videos just as dull and incomprehensible as I’d found math lectures in high school.  Here’s what I loved, though: the hints.  Every problem offered four or five hints, stepping me through the procedures.  Even if I didn’t know how to do something at all, if I looked at the hints, I could figure it out.

Pretty soon, I was learning some pretty crazy stuff.  I’m not going to tell you what it was.  All you need to know is that it was hard.  For me.  My whole desk was scattered with scribbled equations.  I forgot to eat lunch.  When the phone rang, I ignored it.  I did the happy dance multiple times in my chair and twice, I got so excited that I ran around the kitchen cheering quietly and waving my arms, I’m not sure why, it just felt right.

I worked on math for six hours without stopping.  I told you this was going to be a scary post.  I would have worked longer but my dog kept barking because he needed dinner.  I made progress.  I learned.  I enjoyed it tremendously.

Terrifying as it is to admit, I think I might like math after all.

Will technology revolutionize education?  Yes.  No.  Yes.  No.  I’ll explain what I mean later but right now I’m too busy.  It’s a beautiful day, and I’m gonna go do some math.

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8 thoughts on “The Scariest Post I Have Ever Written”

  1. I showed students the Khan website a few weeks ago, but there wasn’t much of a reaction. I didn’t spend an incredible amount of time on it though, so maybe I didn’t sell it enough. I’m not convinced that this will gain mass acceptance among youngsters. Even though they’re much more technologically advanced than I ever was at their age, their still children. Yeah they text and Facebook and Instagram a lot, but I think it’s a bit over rated how much they actually do use technology and how this can impact learning. Still, I think it’s worth trying.

    1. To be clear, I remain unpersuaded that a “flipped” classroom is going to solve the deep and complex problems faced by the LAUSD or other classrooms in underserved communities (or necessarily improve conditions in classes that are already functioning well). As many English teachers have pointed out, ELA classes have always used flipped instruction–with books. Many kids do the reading at home, many do not. Will most teenagers go home and watch a video of genuine, meaningful instruction on a challenging topic? I have to say, i doubt it. The motivated kids would, of course, but those are not the kids we’re trying to reach, since we are already reaching them, right?
      What did surprise me was how much I enjoyed doing practice work in a subject area I’ve hated all my life. For me, it took the embarrassment factor out of the picture. I could struggle on my own, with no one astonished, annoyed or saddened by my lack of knowledge, and no friend at my side to make fun of me, however affectionately. For struggling students, this kind of narrow, focused practice may be helpful. On the other hand, I am a middle-aged nerd who voluntarily spends hours per day writing and learning–not the profile of the average teenager. Still, I’d love to see a good online program with grammar and vocabulary practice, something that took up an enormous amount of class time if done well, and which my students really needed.
      I do want to say, though, that narrow, focused practice is not the same thing as education, and I’m concerned that enthusiasm for the fact that some online programs do this well will overshadow the real, human needs faced by disadvantaged students. For-profit companies, as you have frequently pointed out, are advocating full-out for the use of public funds for technology in the classroom, but there is no for-profit entity lobbying to lower class size, offer after-school intervention or wraparound services to families in need. I’m deeply concerned that money to pay for these services will instead by channelled to glittering high-tech “solutions,” diverting limited public funds from the basic needs that have to be met first before kids can learn. But I want to see blended learning in action first. Maybe I’m wrong.

  2. Gatsby, I am enjoying your blogg, thanks. What a great idea to take a year to reflect on your teaching, and to help us all be more informed. It seems to me a suggestion of your post is that technology might enhance opportunity inequality in our communities. If sites like Kahn Academy help motivated students with good access to technology, but do not improve success of the population we want to help improve, would you say this will enlarge the gap? I am curious about your thoughts. Thanks again

    1. Juan, thanks so much for the encouragement and for commenting. Yes, I am concerned that one of the unintended side effects of an overenthusiastic embrace of technology might be to reinforce inequality. Because many students in low income communities do not have computers or internet access, the school district would have to buy them, something the LAUSD has done at enormous cost, causing huge outcry. At a time when students in California are often in very overcrowded conditions and almost everything has been cut due to lack of funding, the spending of so much money on a completely untested new model is, to say the least, troubling. And as you suggest, I’m unconvinced that video lectures will reach struggling students or students who already feel disconnected from school. So yes, at worst I think it could widen the gap.

  3. I feel you. Math was the thing in my life that always made me feel stupid! Indeed, though it killed me because I was trying to raise a feminist daughter and son, when it came to helping my kids with math homework after fourth grade, my response was always: “Ask your dad.” You will be amused to note, this was one of my tweets last week: “When parent hits 8th grade physics wall, kids text for homework fix. I could’ve used this help with 4th grade math! http://on.wsj.com/1i9WRGX
    xoxo

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