Friday, August 07, 2009


I was terrible at math.

I should qualify that. I was terrible in math class throughout most of my school career. Not that my grades necessarily reflected that. For some reason, my math teachers refused to give me the failing grades I deserved. I guess they thought it would be bad for my self esteem. Maybe they were under pressure to keep all the kids 'on grade level'.

All I know, is that if the current me were the teacher of the former me, my mother would have received a few more phone calls.

Now, it's not that I didn't 'get' math. In fact, my annual scores on the standardized tests were in the 99th percentile. I didn't actually believe this when my mother told me, so I went back to the box of school records she kept and there I found all those testing reports.

99th percentile.

So, why is it that to this day I still have trouble figuring out a tip? Why is it that for the life of me, I have no idea how to do long division?

And why is it that I can figure out batting averages with a click of the fingers? Why am I addicted to statistics in political polls, Olympic swimming, and Dungeons and Dragons? Why do I have the urge to study String Theory and Quantum Mechanics, yet fall into a state of panic at the site of an algebra equation?


I got by in math.

That's the problem. I got by. And I was allowed to get by. Not once in my school career did a math teacher challenge me either with a failing quarter grade or by bumping me up to an advanced level.

On paper, my grades were 'good'. I was a solid 'B' student in math.

Problem was, I was getting 'B's for memorizing equations. I wasn't getting 'B's for understanding what they meant.

I look back on it and I don't blame the teachers. After all, I presented as a smart kid getting decent grades in math. What's the problem? Move on, we've got real issues to deal with here.

But I do harbor resentment against the way we give kids grades.

Because I was a student who knew how to milk that system. I knew how to do enough on the test to get a 'D' and I knew how to do enough homework and extra credit to pull my grade up to an 80 by the end of the quarter. I knew that 'B' meant getting an 80 just as well as it did getting an 89. And I knew the teachers wouldn't fail me.

I was working for the grade. And it was relatively easy to make those grades. Memorize the theorem, get it (mostly) right on the test, and forget it afterwards. I wasn't gonna be a rocket scientist, I just wanted to keep decent enough grades in high school so that I'd be allowed to use the car.

You notice that none of my memories of math have anything to do with math.


I wonder what goes through the minds of our students.

I can spot most of the ones just playing the game like I did. Hopefully, they are doing the outside-of-school reading that I was doing in place of homework and study (I hope). Likely they are working for the grade, working to keep their parents off their backs, working to keep the car.

At the end of every school year we honor the high-achievers. And I think that's fantastic. There are kids in our schools who are actually busting butt to get high grades (some of them even understand the content they're being taught).

But I can't help but think about the slackers, the kids playing the game, the ones who have all but dropped out but who realize how to make it look good on paper.

Because that's what getting the grade is. It's about looking good on paper. Looking good to that college admissions counselor. Looking good to that future employer.

Most of us realize this.


So what to make of this?

What would I do with my slacker 16 year old self were I to meet him in a classroom today? (And really, we're not just talking about math here... despite his grades, that 16 year old didn't learn much Spanish or US Government either -- ironic for a guy who would grow up to be a political junkie foreign language teacher).

I'd start by not letting him get away with 'solving' problems by plugging in a memorized solution.

Then I'd have him earn his stripes by taking what he did know and teaching it to others; perhaps in the setting of an online extension course for younger high-ability students.

I wouldn't let him test out of geometry by regurgitating memorized proofs (I always got the best grades in geometry). I'd have him apply his knowledge to online AutoCad blueprints and 3D virtual reality puzzles.

I wouldn't force him to learn algebra first thing. I'd start him out on statistics and help him understand the foundational stuff in math by demonstrating the science underlying those baseball stats he instinctively knew how to work out in his head. I'd let him work out every stat he could find on And then I'd send him over to the varsity baseball diamond after school to report on the game for the school paper.

I'd let him see math from the point of view of a musician, a photographer, an astronaut, a game designer.

And I'd let him explore things I myself didn't fully understand -- things like astrophysics and the mathematics of computer science -- by facilitating his learning from professionals online.

In other words, if I were that kid's teacher today, I'd try to figure out why 2+2=bore and then do something about it.

Because the numbers reflected in grades don't add up to the equations of creativity and connectivity we've all got stored deep in our minds. And we, as teachers, need to recognize that deep down our students actually do want something more than a grade. They want something more than a hoop to jump through and a requirement to check off.

They want the truth.

So give 'em the tools to find it. Teach them how and where to look. And then be there to help them understand what they've found.

Because the truth is that come the end of the quarter none of those grades can ever tell you a bean's worth about what that kid knows. They only tell you whether the kid knows how to play the game.


  1. Good for you. Math is a noose around many young peoples lives. What this does to ones self esteem and confidence is remarkable.

    You might be pleased to know that the curriculum I am teaching is slowing things down so that math lessons are not transmitted and numbers are more “hands on activity based”.

    I suspect this will give students a stronger foundation including better number sense.

    I appreciated your sentence about playing the game...In my mind this means the regurgitation game. I wasn’t good at that until much later and now I teach my own children this game, I guess you knew it still exists.

    I enjoy your “from the heart” writing, great post.


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