Monthly Archives: October 2011

Who wants the cold hard truth?

My life feels overly full at the moment, with college recommendations, uninteresting graduate work, having to look for a new apartment, and on and on, but my mind is teeming as well, so I need to get some thoughts down.

Richard, a friend of mine, has taken on the massive project of writing a screenplay, and this Friday I took part in a reading of his most recent draft.  Something got me thinking.  When are we ready to hear the cold hard truth about our work?  Can we ever get right down to it, without all the fluff?

* * *

I loved the reading for so many reasons!

My parents were both actors, and I was really into theater in high school, but in college I was sort of intimidated and never took part.  Reconnecting with myself as a performer was really exciting and personal.  Secondly, I loved the spontaneous creativity of it all – coming together in one room to create something live.  Most of all, I loved that Richard was willing to share something so personal with us.  I know too well how daunting it can be to open creative work up for critique, so when he asked for our “candid opinions,” I felt I should be careful.

For over two hours, we sat there reading out the parts and narration, from start to finish.  Once the applause died down, Richard announced he would use the bathroom, but then he really did want our feedback.  (“Save the psychoanalysis for another time”, he said.)  We were mostly silent in the interim, reflecting on the experience, but what happened next sort of shocked me.

* * *

Paul, another friend, who read for the main character began with this, “first of all, you can’t write a screenplay like this.  It’s completely exhausting!  You’re doing everyone’s job and it has to be cut down.”  Without saying more than a word of praise, Paul went on to call the math “so undergraduate,” (Heisenberg and Einstein appear) as part of an unflinching and frank analysis of the work.  Everything was on the table.

His comments came off as rather harsh, to me, but then I saw Richard.  He focused his eyes on the floor and listened carefully to the critique.  Richard nodded, but when it came time, defended a few points and rethought a few others.  He was by no means phased, stunned, hurt, or disheartened by the criticism.  Richard really wanted this.  It was the reason he had called us here, and he took Paul’s comments seriously.

This set the tone, and for the next twenty minutes, we got very involved in breaking down the screenplay.  Did that make sense?  Was that unmotivated?  Was that bit comedically cheap?  What’s missing?  We took turns attacking and defending the work, focusing on the specifics of the writing and experience we had shared, confident that Richard was undeterred and would use this information to improve the screenplay.  This was the thing we all wanted and were now a part of.

As I listened to Paul, I started  to wonder if students want to be talked to this way.  Does it ever make sense to say, “you know, I don’t think this is very good at all, and here’s why?”

* * *

When you require a student to take your test or complete your homework assignment, also subjecting them to harsh and condemning criticism can be cruel and unproductive.  When is criticism helpful, and when is it just salt in the wounds?

I think the difference is personal attachment and investment in the work.

If I don’t care about the test I’ve just taken or problem I’ve just worked on, then why should I care what you have to say about it?  On the other hand, when I’ve worked hard to create something worth while, something I really care about, something I want to be great, when anything less than awesome will be unsatisfying to me personally, then I need the truth.  I can deal with the harsh reality, because I need your help to get where I want to be.

On the other hand, if we’re talking about something I only did out of obligation or requirement, then I’m not likely to receive your negativity very well.  How well does this description fit students who see themselves as “not really a math person?”  How can blunt, borderline scathing criticism help in that case?

* * *

Justin makes a really good point.  If you want to know what kind of feedback your students would appreciate, then ask them.  I continue to think it’s all about personal attachment to growth and creation.

How do we get our students to make their education significant and meaningful?  How do we make our feedback really impactful?  In both cases, I say “help them work on personally significant and meaningful things.”

Let go of requirement and see the wider spectrum of learning.  Help them follow their interests and make something great.  Something they care about.

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A terribly unfunny YouTube video

I was able to secure an iMac for my classroom, and I love it.  I use it everyday for everything from email and our google docs to running my document camera through it.  Of course this includes watching YouTube videos.  YouTube is an amazing resource for mathematical videos like this, this, and this one, but it is naturally also a resource for terrible crap.

As the above xkcd comic explains, YouTube viewing has inherent cultural problems.  Students love to try and show me various viral videos, including the one below. In it, a young boy focuses on a computer maze game.  As he finishes the third level, a loud and scary face appears, leaving the boy terrified, upset, and seemingly traumatized.

With tens of millions of views and shares, this video is certainly viral, and it has all of the tell-tale signs.  It is reality footage in rather raw form, and we get to painlessly observe someone else’s misfortune.  Many, including some of my students, unfortunately, think it’s quite funny.  I can hardly watch it.

Obviously the boy is being treated somewhat cruelly by someone he trusts, someone who is making fun of his fear and helplessness, but what I can’t stand has to do with learning.

Before being so brutally shocked and terrified, the boy is working hard to complete the game.  “Why can’t I touch this?” he asks timidly, trying to make sense of the challenge.  To me, he looks like someone deeply engaged in the mental crunch that constitutes great learning – the kind that makes your brain hurt.  He’s dropped his guard, is unafraid of failure, and makes steady progress towards the goal.  At the very moment he finishes the third level and should be rewarded, he is punished and terrorized.

It’s beyond cruel.  It is sincerely horrible, and I am convinced it must have had lasting impact on this boy’s psyche.

* * *

Though this is an extreme example, I had this kind of thing in mind when I wrote this post called “Letting students be dead wrong.”  When we ask students to really stretch themselves, challenge themselves, and learn with serious concentration, we are asking them to trust us.  We’re asking them to let down their guard and be somewhat vulnerable so that they can devote every shred of their conscious thought to learning something tough.

As teachers, we are given tremendous trust and charged with developing the one thing most central to our students, their minds.  We’re asked to tinker with their brains, and in the process, we have the potential to do great damage if we act irresponsibly.

If videos like this are indicative of the way our culture mistreats or devalues learners, we have work to do to restore the sanctity of learning.  Even with the best of intentions, school done badly can be very harmful.  It can crush the spirits and creative spark of our children and impose inappropriate performance demands.  I’m not so anti-school, but I certainly wonder sometimes about what this school system can really accomplish, and its unintended consequences.

In medicine and education – first, do no harm.

In the thick of it

School is on for real now.  Some days are amazing, and others I have a hard time keeping on top of it all, being my best, and staying energized.  This is the standard “school’s making it hard to find time to write” post, but I have lots to share coming up.  Stuff like:

An update on free-choice time | Thoughts on being observed by my department chair | Rave reviews on some edtech stuff I’m using | Some plain good math stuff

Escher Sketch

The post about technology was a request by some of my awesome Twitter followers. (Though really I follow them.)  I love when this blog gets discussion started, and I’m happy to respond to prompts and questions, so feel free to send them my way.

Sculpting Hands

So no, there’s not any real content to this post, but the great news is the internet lets me very quickly find a series of excellent photos to share.  Here’s more in the M.C. Escher “Drawing Hands” theme and variation series.

More good pics here, and here’s one made with Lego.

-Keep learning.  Talk to you soon.