You Don’t Need Math

Add maths

A math major who turned out to be not very good as a mathematician, looks back at his studies and nevertheless finds some lessons he learned that have “nothing to do with numbers and everything to do with life”. He offers some nuggets in this essay that will apply regardless of the subjects you studied.

1. I expect to not get the answer on the first try.

It might sound pessimistic, but I think it’s pragmatic. I was rarely discouraged, because I never expected a quick win. And if I was correct on the first stab, I was pleasantly surprised. I became well-rehearsed in failed attempts, and so much more patient as a result.

I learned that lesson very early in my mathematical studies and it was one I tried to convey to my students when I started teaching.

Accepting that things don’t always work right the first time leads directly to this.

2. I can tolerate ungodly amounts of frustration.

Writer’s block has nothing on a tough math problem, and I’ve suffered through both. Writer’s block usually boils down to you thinking you’re not good enough. With math, it feels like the universe is mocking your ineptitude.

Of course math concepts can be frustrating. But there are plenty of other fields, like writing, that have their own unique stumbling blocks. Plenty of other endeavors, academic and not, have mocked my ineptitude over my life.

But frustration is not fun for anyone. Which leads into his third lesson learned.

3. I attack problems from multiple angles

Studying math was like maintaining a toolbox. Each time I learned something new, into the big red box that newfound knowledge went. Who knew when it would be useful? Long-buried methods could be just the socket wrench I needed later on.

Again, any field of study has it’s own set of tools. And any problem worth solving requires looking at the issues from different points of view. People who are successful at anything have assembled their tools and have learned how to try different ones when confronted with a new problem.

Again, an approach we need to be teaching our students, regardless of the subject on the syllabus.

The former mathematician has a few other lessons and more to say if you care to read the whole essay. But this for me is the bottom line:

Six years into my career, I can say that being comfortable with numbers and data has been useful, but what has proved invaluable are the qualities that math imbued in me?—?patience, attention to detail, humility and persistence. That was the true reward.

So, should every student take a rigorous program of mathematics in order to gain these qualities? Of course not.

Learning to write, mastering the French horn, creating the sound design for a play, repairing an automobile, all have answers that elude solution on the first try, create frustration, and require multiple approaches to succeed.

With the right teachers, students can learn patience, attention to detail, humility, and patience by working on the skills necessary for whatever interests them.


The image Add math by Chee Meng Au Yong was posted to Flickr and is used under a Creative Commons license.

Finding the Tall Poppies

In a previous post I explained my process for keeping up with what’s going on the in world without turning on TV news. It’s pretty simple, very personal, and definitely not for everyone.

Recently I got a little reinforcement for my approach from a “futurist” whose approach for reading less news and being better informed was profiled in a Quartz article.

I disagree with some of his ideas – like getting off social media and “going dark” for periods of time. And I’ve never been comfortable in striking up conversations with random strangers.

But here are a few of his ideas I can completely endorse.

1. Practice selective ignorance

Trying to keep up with everything happening is a great recipe for frustration. So concentrate on finding better information on fewer but important topics.

3. Find the “tall poppies”
The futurist advises that each of us cultivate a network of curious and remarkable people who are hungry for interesting information and can guide our thinking. Such remarkable characters are called “tall poppies” in some companies, and Watson believes collecting these human blooms drives success.

Love that term “tall poppies”. For me, I also want poppies in my network who challenge my thinking in a constructive way.

5. Find sources you trust
Follow reliable, thoughtful, forward-looking publications and journalists online and let them do the heavy lifting, finding the most interesting info for you.

As I said in the earlier post, this is the core of my learning process. Creating reliable, thoughtful material takes hard work and time. You don’t get that from the talking heads channels.

Finally, he recommends travel, something more Americans need to do. Even if it’s visiting unfamiliar parts of your own country.


The image illustrates an article called Humans are Built to be Futurists on Futurist.com, a relatively new blog written by a futurist consultant.

In Praise of Messiness

Brain 2062057 640

If you are someone whose work process is often messy (like me), I recommend a book whose author makes the case that disorder can be good. That disorder can often lead to creative and innovative results. And that strict adherence to organization might just be getting in the way of making real progress. 

The book is titled Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives and in the first chapter, the author profiles the seemingly chaotic approach to music used by Brian Eno. You may not have heard of Eno but you certainly know some of the people he worked with, including David Bowie.

Eno took to showing up at the studio with a selection of cards he called Oblique Strategies. Each had a different instruction, often a gnomic one. Whenever the studio sessions were running aground, Eno would draw a card at random and relay its strange orders.

— Be the first not to do what has never not been done before
— Emphasize the flaws
— Only a part, not the whole
— Twist the spine
— Look at the order in which you do things
— Change instrument roles

I especially love the idea on the first strategy card he wrote:

The first was “Honor thy error as a hidden intention,” a reminder that sometimes what is achieved by accident may be much more worthy of attention than the original plan.

Eno’s process often baffled and sometimes frustrated the people he was working with, but it also helped them to do some of the best work of their lives.

Very often we as teachers expend a great deal of effort trying to get our students to be organized, believing it will help them produce better work. Maybe we need to help them embrace the messiness of their process and learn to make it work for them instead.

Ok, so you may not come to that conclusion, even after reading this book. But I found it to be a wonderful collection of stories and ideas that show how a messy process can often lead to creative results. It’s also a fun read.


Brain by Elisa Riva is distributed by Pixabay and is used under a Creative Commons license.

Making Procrastination Work For You

 

I first saw this TED Talk about a year ago, and I seriously related to this other Tim’s very funny analysis of the process that goes with procrastination. Of course, being a serious, unrepentant procrastinator for most of my life, it has been sitting in my gotta-blog-about-this-sometime file for a while.

But I agree with him that probably everyone, even those hyper-efficient people that I am not, procrastinates on something, at some point in their life. Some of us have just learned to live and work with the panic monster better than them. :-)

Enjoy.

There’s Nothing “Super” About It

Cathy Davidson has a new book in which she proposes “how to revolutionize the university to prepare students for a world in flux”. Nothing like setting high goals for yourself, is there?

In an excerpt from that book, she tackles the slightly less daunting issue of whether technology in the classroom benefits or hurts students.

She makes many great points in a very short space, but anyone who makes decisions about using technology in a K12 classroom should be required to demonstrate an understanding of this paragraph.

Here’s the connection between educational technophobia or technophilia: Both presume that technology in and of itself has superpowers that can either tank or replace human learning. Technology can automate many things. What it cannot automate is how humans learn something new and challenging. Neither can it, in its own right, rob us of our ability to learn when we want and need to learn. It can distract us, entice us away from the business of learning–but so can just about anything else when we’re bored.

Exactly. Technology is not a superhero. Or a super-villain. Good outcomes or bad (or something in-between) depends on how you use it.

Instead of either banning devices or automating information retrieval–whether from a screen or a lecturer droning on from the podium–the best pedagogical research we have reinforces the idea that learning in the classroom is most effective when it proceeds pretty much the way it does when we try to master something new outside of school: learning incrementally, being challenged, trying again. I even studied for my driver’s test that way–and certainly that’s what I do if I’m aspiring to something really difficult.

Incremental and challenging certainly doesn’t describe the test-driven process that “learning” in most American schools. With or without technology.