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Posted in Educational Reform

Little Albert And Modern Education

Children naturally love to learn, but they naturally fear disapproval. When the two experiences are repeatedly juxtaposed, they come to be automatically linked up in a child’s nervous system.

In 1920 the psychologist John Watson performed an experiment that provides an apt metaphor for the modern system of formal childhood education.

The purpose of the experiment was to extend Pavlov’s famous results in classical conditioning to emotional reactions in people. The subject of the experiment was a nine month old baby boy who came to be known as “Little Albert”. Little Albert was exposed to a series of fuzzy white stimuli, including a white rat and a rabbit. At first Little Albert bubbled and giggled with delight and took an interest in the critters, as children are naturally prone to do.

In the next phase of the experiment, however, Watson would stand behind the boy and strike a metal pipe with a hammer, producing a loud, sharp sound each time the fuzzy white stimulus was introduced. The sound was instinctively frightening to the little boy, who would start crying immediately when he heard it. After repeated juxtaposition of the stimuli, Little Albert soon began to cry merely upon introduction of the white rat, or indeed any other fuzzy, white object, such a fur coat or Santa Claus beard. In the words of Watson,

The instant the rat was shown, the baby began to cry. Almost instantly he turned sharply to the left, fell over on [his] left side, raised himself on all fours and began to crawl away so rapidly that he was caught with difficulty before reaching the edge of the table.

In this metaphor, learning is the fuzzy white rat that all children are instinctively excited by. The hammer and pipe are the disapproval of teachers and peers. The loud sound is the fear, shame, and embarrasment that are an integral part of the classical conditioning procedure embedded throughout modern formal education.

From my own experience: in the second grade, when I was seven years old, I was supposed to learn long division of integers. Before I was ready, I was called to the board to perform a long division problem, and I didn’t know what to do. I felt embarrassed and ridiculed in front of the entire class. I later went on to earn a degree in math and physics, and attended graduate school in both subjects, without ever learning how to do long division.  More accurately, I have learned it several times, but each time I have promptly forgotten it. Now, when I teach precalculus students how to do long division of polynomials, I have to relearn it every time. Of course I could overcome this block with sufficient work, but that’s not the point of the story. The point of the story is this:

Our education system is accomplishing the opposite of what it should be accomplishing with phenomenal efficiency.  My goal as an online tutor and academic coach is to reverse the damage, one student at a time.

(More on the Little Albert experiment.)

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Posted in Academic Coaching

The Day My Future Career As A Scientist Died

Starting around the age of 16, I decided that I wanted to be a scientist of some kind. I went to a special magnet school for math and science, and when I went to college I majored in math and physics. I double majored because I thought I wanted to learn everything I could, but there were also more unhealthy motivations at play.

During my senior year, when I was considering options for graduate school, I had a conversation with one of my physics professors, a rough-and-ready good ol’ boy (with a reputation for resorting to non-conventional disciplinary measures with particularly troublesome students). I had asked him whether he thought I could get accepted to UT Austin, his alma mater, and appearing to consider carefully, he said “Yes, I think you’re smart enough…” This meant a lot coming from him, since UT Austin is one of the most prestigious physics universities around. There was something in his voice, however, that seemed to hint that that wasn’t all that it would take, but I realize now that that was truly the day my career as a scientist died (although I wasn’t to realize it for a number of years afterwards).

I have written before about my need as a kid to be perceived as smart to justify my self-worth (https://synergy-tutoring.com/2013/10/06/dont-tell-kids-theyre-smart/), and it turns out that this was a big source of my motivation to be a scientist: to prove, to myself, the world, and everyone, how smart I was. So it seems now, looking back, that when I heard those three words (“you’re smart enough”) from someone that I considered to be a credible source, some part of me felt that I was already “in the club”, and further qualifications were unnecessary.

As it turns out, I did go on to go to graduate school – in California rather than Texas – but my heart wasn’t in it, and I eventually decided that academia wasn’t the right career path for me. Instead I have gone on to have a very different set of life experiences than I thought I wanted to have when I was projecting forward into the future at age 16, motivated largely by the desire to prove myself to myself.

The point of this story is to illustrate the importance of not only being clear about what you want to do with your life, but also about why you want to do it. I spent years climbing a ladder only to find out that it was against the wrong wall, and this is one of my reasons for being so passionate about helping students get in touch with their true desires and highest vision for their lives.

Posted in Homeschooling, Resources

Where To Find Great Homeschooling Services

One reason parents often feel intimidated by the idea of homeschooling is that they think they have to go it alone and don’t know where to start. The reality is that homeschooling is an exploding industry, and there is a huge variety of products, services, and organizations dedicated to meeting the diverse needs of the homeschooling community. Whether you are brand new to homeschooling or have years of experience, whether you want to be more hands-on or hands-off, there are people and resources that can help you find your niche.

One such list of resources is compiled by the microtutoring site Studypool. In addition to their primary mission of helping to link up struggling students with tutors ready to help them on-demand, they’ve done a fantastic job of pulling together a wide variety of accredited homeschooling programs complete with location and enrollment requirements: https://www.studypool.com/guide/home-schooling-services

All kids, including yours, learn much more from inspiring examples than they do from lectures, and that’s why it’s important that you show them the importance of living life on your own terms. That’s why I always tell parents, if homeschooling is your dream, go for it!

Posted in Tips for Students

How To Deal With Test Anxiety

Often it is the most sensitive and talented students who are affected the most by test anxiety.  Students who would ordinarily be top performers fall apart under the pressure of testing conditions.  Why?

This is a phenomenon discussed in some detail in Psycho-Cybernetics by Maxwell Maltz. He actually identifies two different types of response to pressure. In one profile, a person performs meticulously when the pressure is not on, then breaks down and performs poorly under pressure. In the other profile, a person performs lazily and sloppily when there is no pressure, then buckles down and performs nearly flawlessly when the stakes are high. The author used the example of a story about a man who was the world’s best golfer, as long as he was leisurely putting on the green, but if he ever competed in a tournament he would always come in last.

What causes the breakdown of performance, according to Maxwell Maltz, is an overabundance of self-correction. The remedy would be to find ways to take the pressure off internally, which consists of visualizing a positive outcome while becoming unattached to what actually happens. In other words, you have to find ways to convince yourself, or at least temporarily suspend your disbelief, that you will be successful AND that there is no danger or harm in making mistakes.

Posted in Educational Reform, Math

Research Shows Timed Testing Causes Math Anxiety – DUH!

I recently came across an article in Education Week where Stanford mathematics education professor Jo Boaler highlights a number of research studies that establish something those of us who pay attention have known for a long time: timed testing causes math anxiety. Can you say “Duh!”

The article and its sources describe the results of various studies of the cognitive, behavioral, emotional, and neurological effects of timed testing, which I will summarize below. Not to scare you or anything, but

  • Timed testing creates math anxiety that disproportionately affects the highest and lowest performing students
  • Math anxiety tends to persist and grow over time with repeated exposure to negative stimuli, leading to lasting consequences, including limitation of career options
  • Math anxiety actually has measurable neurological effects that inhibit the recall of known facts as well as the acquisition of new knowledge – that’s right, sending your kids to school can actually prevent them from learning and lead to lasting brain damage
  • Math anxiety causes emotional distress that can contribute to self-image issues that persist throughout adult life
  • Math anxiety is on the rise and is directly correlated with common public school teaching policies
  • Timed testing kills curiosity and enthusiasm and leads students to see math as a matter of performance and competition rather than as a fascinating subject with intrinsic value, which corresponds to am immense loss of value for society
  • Timed testing leads students to equate effectiveness and achievement with rapidity, which is so far from the truth it’s not even funny

This article just goes to highlight two things I have always said, that more fear = less learning, and that the public school system is accomplishing the exact opposite of what it should be doing, at an alarming rate. It just adds more evidence to the pile that for many students, school actually does more harm than good, and sane alternatives are needed, like, yesterday.

So what is the solution? The article and its references also highlight the positive changes that need to happen, specifically that learning needs to take place in an emotionally uplifting, stress-free environment that uses positive reinforcement and encourages exploration, imagination, and creativity, and that develops divergent thinking skills alongside convergent thinking skills.

For kids who are suffering under the yoke of public schooling, I always do my best to control and counteract the psychological damage caused by such practices as timed testing, and empower them to discover and use their innate mental superpowers.

Posted in Educational Reform, Math

Does Being Good At Math Make You “Smart”?

It continues to confound and amaze me how often I have the following type of exchange:

Person: “What do you do?”

Me: “I teach math.”

Person: “Oh my god, you must be so smart! I hated/was terrible at math!”

My experience learning and teaching math has shown me that not only is math just another subject that anyone who desires can learn and become skilled at, what’s more it is an innate human ability that everyone has, just like the ability to use language, recognize faces, run, swim, or climb trees. Along with math, all of these are activities that we recognize as skills that can be developed and improved, yet still innately human and instinctive for us as a species. All humans can do math, just like all birds can fly and all cats can hunt.

So, why is math considered to be a measure of “smartness” rather than an innate ability that anybody can develop? I speculate there are at least two factors feeding into the persistence of this pattern:

One is that the Newtonian-Cartesian scientific paradigm, which emphasizes the supremacy and superiority of rational, quantitative, and convergent modes of thought over and above the workings of insight, intuition, divergent thought, and artistic perception, has been supremely successful in the areas of science to which it readily applies, which has led to a kind of arrogant intellectual monism in which rational, linear, convergent thinking is seen as superior to nonrational, nonlinear, or divergent thinking.

The other is that math is generally taught in primary school in ways that are demonstrably inefficient and counterproductive, and that lead to disempowerment and sap intellectual curiosity, so only people with exceptional talent or exceptional immunity to cultural conditioning tend to thrive intellectually in such an environment. In an ideal learning environment, different people would pursue different subjects to different degrees determined by their interest and motivation, but nobody would come away with a phobia of any particular subject, or of learning in general, as is far too often the case in traditional public schools.  This is why much of the work I do as a tutor and academic coach consists of what is essentially PTSD rehabilitation therapy for math-related social anxiety.

Posted in Teaching & Learning, Tips for Students

How To Learn Math (Or Anything Else) Faster

I always say it’s better to play keep-up than catch-up, which means staying a little ahead of the progression of concepts in a class, rather than a little (or a lot) behind.  This means that you have to proceed at the rate the class progresses.  But what can you do if you feel like a class is progressing faster than your ability keep up?

Logically, there are only three things you can do to increase your rate of learning:

  1. Spend more time studying than you already do. If you are currently spending two hours per day, spend three, for example. Note that this approach has diminishing returns.
  2. Improve your process by learning how to study more efficiently. This requires that you invest time in learning how to learn faster. There are various resources and approaches for this, such as Scott Young’s Ultralearning.
  3. Hire a guide. Working with a tutor can increase the overall rate at which you learn by roughly a factor of three while reducing the stress you experience, and a tutor who is also a good academic coach will help you improve your process so that you can learn more efficiently on your own as well.
Posted in Math, Teaching & Learning, Tips for Students

How To Learn Math (Or Anything Else)

As the title of this post indicates, the process I am about to describe is actually the natural learning process for anything, not just math.

First, Get Curious

Learning has to start with curiosity. You can be curious about math as a means to an end (say, if you want to be a financial analyst or engineer, for example), or you can be curious about math for its own sake (if you want to be a mathematician, this will probably apply to you).

Remember, curiosity is an emotion, and emotions are generated in part by what we focus on and what we tell ourselves. So, if you want to learn something but don’t have any curiosity about it, generate some! Curiosity is the glue that makes new knowledge stick.

Explore

Once you get started, let your curiosity lead you into new and interesting territory. Venture forth into the material with an agenda of pure discovery. Let this be an open-ended, non-directive process, with no particular goal in mind, the same way that you would read a novel or watch a movie.

Think of the last new movie that you saw. Can you remember the setting? The plot? The characters? Were you trying to memorize any of those things? That should be proof enough to you that this method works.

Practice

In math, practice could take the form of performing calculations, solving problems, or writing proofs. In other subjects, it could take the form of answering practice questions or re-communicating what you have learned, either by writing or speaking. It is a Law of Learning that the harder you work for a particular piece of knowledge the better you will retain it, so don’t shirk on effort here. Just like with working out, the more you sweat, the more you get!

Get Help

Once you have put in sufficient practice, you are in an ideal position to ask for and receive help. Asking for help from a teacher, tutor, or mentor at this point will help you fill in any gaps that you have identified in your understanding, uncover any blind spots you may have and improve your process. This is how you go from proficient to efficient. Having first put in the effort to understand the material yourself will prepare you to appreciate and receive what is being offered.