A vague childhood memory pops into my head fairly often, and the event’s subsequent effect on my thinking surely appears daily. This thought of mine is confirmed and reinforced everyday, because I sense it in almost everything I see and hear, the way I suspect religious faith is reaffirmed in the faithful. It’s become my very favorite thing about the world, and I’m certain of the enormous impact it’s had on my learning, and yet I wonder how present it is in our schools today.
Here’s the gist – Humans did that.
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The strange recursive process that is memory recall/storage has muddled the exact details, but this is the story as I can remember it now. My parents and I were at a movie (perhaps a drive-in), seeing something semi-scary like ET or Ghostbusters (except it was neither of those), and I got sort of scared. My best guess is Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, which came out when I was six. At one of the bloodier or more potentially frightening moments, I looked to my dad for support. “It’s not real,” he said, “those are just actors – just normal people pretending.”
This made good sense to me, because both of my parents were actors, and I had spent plenty of time in the theater world. I could pretend, and if I looked at the screen just right, I could see it for what it was – some humans doing some stuff. (or even just light on a screen) As this thought propagated more and more in my brain, I realized that I could choose at any time to snap out of it and break almost any illusion. This surely figured prominently in the formation of my religious beliefs, because, as I told myself, books like the Bible were obviously written, edited, and republished by humans.
More than that, I learned two hugely important lessons. I could control my mind, and if they could do that, so could I. When I watched a clown juggle, when I listened to the Beatles sing, when I wanted to fix my bike, or write a song, or build a ramp, or flip off a diving board, these powerful thoughts pushed me through it.
Knowing that humans like me did every amazing thing in this world comforts and empowers me.
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The season premiere of Boardwalk Empire blew me away last Sunday, and during the opening scene there it was. A terrific old song from the 20’s played, and I started thinking about the people who made this music. Firstly I realized this was a new recording made probably only months ago – arranged and performed by people in LA. This amazed me, and I imagined the mostly normal life of this singer. Then I thought about the original songwriters. What was it like to write that song? I’d love to hear their false starts and alternate lyrics and to know the series of choices they made in its creation.
The same is true of mathematics, and I love that! Every shred of math is the product of human thinking. Whether you see the mathematical process as invention or discovery, everything in these books was put down, just so, by people like us. Is zero in the set of natural numbers? Is it even? Is it positive? Is 1 prime? Humans decided the answers! (and they don’t all agree.)
This is part of what drives me so crazy about standard mathematics; Students are constantly trying to figure out what “they” are asking, when we should be the ones asking. We have the ability to do mathematics the same way mathematicians do, (albeit on our own terms), so why aren’t we doing it?
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Look around you. Everything you see, from the size and design of the room you’re in down to the buttons, knobs, and handles of every object was conceived, designed, and built by humans. Everything we see is the result of conscious choice on the part of empowered, thoughtful people.
How does school help students become these people, when it offers them very little choice at all? You must take this class. You must read this book. You must reduce your fractions. You must show your work… and on and on.
In rethinking the way we teach young people, this point seems potentially vital! I want to show my students the overwhelming effect of deliberate human choice on the shape of our world, and I want to show them that they can be a part of that process. By helping students make choices, I can teach them to take control of their lives, and to shape their own little world.