Category Archives: Juggling

Posts about juggling and learning.

Is the math/juggling comparison fair?

I’ve written recently about my experience learning to juggle as well as better ways to teach juggling. Here’s the gist of my argument: When you provide children with an enticing and accessible experience, sometimes simply by showing them something cool, they often want to give it a go. If you can give them success straight away and let them “feel like a juggler,” then they are likely to form a personal attachment and pride that carry them into further success and expertise.

The really key premise, especially since I mostly teach math not juggling, is that we can do the same thing for mathematics. By removing standard progressions for mathematical development (which I think is anything but standard), we can open the mathematical world to young people and give them experiences that make them feel like mathematicians. As I’ve said before, learning math is learning to be a mathematician and think like one.

* * *

In the comments, a friend wrote about her experience blowing glass, and a professor in Santa Cruz left the following comment:

One problem you face is that people think juggling is cool (and glass-blowing is hot), but very few people have those positive feelings towards math. Even if they are reasonably competent, many people don’t particularly like doing math and don’t care whether they get better or not.

The successes you see with people learning to juggle don’t necessarily translate to other subjects where the motivation is lacking.

I’ve coached math teams where everyone was there because they wanted to be, and it was very much like your description of juggling classes—so it isn’t the material so much as it is the desire to learn it.

* * *

I think the professor is quite right about several things. Firstly, I agree that the desire to learn is crucial for formative experiences. Unfortunately, there are lots of ninth graders (and tons of adults) who think math is totally lame. It’s boring. It’s not for them. It’s something for the really super smart. They’re much more likely to get inspired by juggling, that fun and somewhat silly though technical art.

1) Juggling is immediately compelling and visually accessible.
2) Juggling is not a part of school, and without having been required to try it and be graded on their failures, people are much more likely to give it a go.

In contrast, every ninth grader has had a mountain of experience with mathematics, and to speak generally, I think a lot of it is bad – the kind of experiences that tell you “this is not for you,” or “you’re probably not a mathematician, huh?” Fractional arithmetic anyone?

In my experience, young students (elementary and middle school) are much more open to the possibility that mathematical exploration and experiences might apply to them. And yet, even at an ungraded and somewhat free school like Saint Ann’s, the mathematical light goes out for many kids. The loss of interest is largely our own fault! I have to take that personally and think that a huge part of my job is to keep this fire going. Teach them that they are capable mathematicians and that their own questions are at least as valuable as the ones in textbooks.

I’m working very hard to make this happen for students grades five through twelve, and I hope you will too. I’ll report back through the year, and hopefully you’ll do the same. Thank you for your comments!


Rethinking the foundations of juggling ed

I’ve been learning to juggle since I was in elementary school, and I’ve been teaching it almost as long. I’ve seen other people teach it, and I’ve read Seymour Papert’s description in his book, Mindstorms, each time nearly identical. When I taught some soon-to-be fifth and sixth graders this week, however, I broke from tradition, and what resulted amazed me!

By rethinking what juggling is, and what it takes to get started, I was able to provide my students with an almost immediate sense of success, and a feeling that they were jugglers. I try do the same for mathematics.

* * *

This video is the perfect example of juggling “pedagogy,” in which the student learns to throw a single ball, then two, and finally three, at each point focusing on the technique needed to perform the three ball pattern. This sort of makes sense, because the three ball pattern is seen as the starting point for jugglers, so until you’ve worked your way up, “you’re not really juggling.” Build your way up to three, and then you can start to try the really fun, tricky stuff. Sound familiar?

Over the years, I’ve told countless students that the little two ball handoff thing they were doing was not juggling, or that they’re doing it wrong. But I’ve thought a lot this summer about juggling notation, and I’ve come to the realization that two ball juggling is perfectly legitimate! I’ve even found some really beautiful patterns. So when I taught these kids, I gave them two balls each and started with that little hand off trick I had so often called “not juggling.”

They loved it!

Many quickly nailed the hand off and tried other little patterns and tricks of their choosing. They essentially skipped the partly boring “skill building” phase and went straight ahead to the exciting and personal “trick creation” phase. Even better, I think these happened at once, because the two-ball domain is immediately accessible and profoundly rich. By getting straight to the good stuff, these students had a real sense, right away, that they could do it. They could juggle. One proud fifth grader said, “if I get some juggling balls, I’m just gonna get two!”

* * *

Reevaluating what it takes to “be a juggler” allowed me to bring these students in to that experience straight away. Juggling ed revolution or not, it reaffirmed some principles for me.

If you want to get kids into something (math, juggling, or otherwise) get to the good stuff. Show them they can do it. If it’s immediately appealing and the class knows they’re doing the real thing, then they are likely to dig in.

Secondly, we can do away with the standard build up to really juggling or doing real math, since both are possible from day one. There are many paths towards expertise and advanced ability, so instead of correcting a student for their first attempt (a two ball hand off), find success within it and let them go from there.

What it takes to be a clown at McDonald’s

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.