In a time when it was still acceptable to eat at McDonald’s, the seed of a very powerful idea was placed in my mind – one that has had a hugely positive impact on my life. It was “family night,” which meant they hired a clown to do magic tricks and juggle for the kids. I was probably nine and definitely fascinated by the tricks. (Aren’t we all at that age?) Luckily, this clown brought a bunch of plastic grocery bags from Schnuck’s and, using them as a poor man’s scarves, he taught me to juggle three.
In truth, he taught me how juggling worked. I would have to teach myself to actually do it. Nonetheless the damage had been done, the seed placed, because I knew for certain that I could teach myself juggling.
That night, and every day for a while, I practiced with the bags and found balls and fruit, probably irritating my parents a lot, until I bought a little juggling set. It came with a book about juggling tricks, so I taught myself how to do them. I made up my own tricks and mini-challenges to myself, to see what I was capable of, and I just kept on trying them until I got it.
I dropped juggling and picked it up from time to time, but by the end of high school, I could juggle clubs, rings, balls, knives, torches, and do all sorts of tricks and routines – the same kind that dropped my jaw in McDonald’s. In fact, my first math/ed conference was a free trip to Las Vegas to juggle with Bill Thayer.
I had become an expert juggler, and all this because I knew I could teach myself.
* * *
“How do people become experts?” I wonder this a lot, lately. My first thought is that it can happen just like this. The juggling clown introduces it to you. Then you go off and try it, consulting books and friends, the internet, talking about it, practicing it, challenging yourself, and slowly getting better. You pick it up, you leave it, but you always know that you can juggle. What makes this kind of learning work is the idea that if you keep at it, you will improve, tied to the fact that you are doing something you like, getting better because you want to.
I’ve taught juggling several times, and though I’m not qualified to say so, I would guess that no one is juggling disabled. Surely some people come to it with a more developed sense of hand-eye coordination or spatial ability, but I’ve seen dramatic growth in every juggling student, no matter what struggles they have at school.
I can imagine if juggling were required at school, many students might lack engagement with the standard tricks being required for their yearly performance. Class might be so far from an aesthetic juggling experience that the students never feel that they can teach themselves. Yet in the students I’ve seen, the opposite is the case.
* * *
Expertise seems so critically vital today, in our huge and non-stop world where learning everything is ever more absurd and we rely on increasingly technical knowledge. It occurs to me that school would be a rave success if every student left it with a profound and fulfilling sense of expertise. They would transition confidently into adulthood, knowing they could rely on themselves to learn.
If I were designing a school around this idea, I don’t think it would look much like the schools we have now, perhaps not even my own. Here’s a blueprint – Intelligent and empathetic adults with something compelling to share; Far less requirements on student time; And a culture that celebrates their success, allows them to set their own goals and challenges, and improve on their own schedule.
I’m trying constantly to give my students a place to have this kind of experience with mathematics. School should be about them. It should be personal.