I flipped around this Illustrative Math lesson — it went pretty well!

Every year, this lesson has given my students trouble:

Screen Shot 2019-10-28 at 12.26.34 PM

Screen Shot 2019-10-28 at 12.26.44 PM

Here were the problems I had with the lesson:

  • My students didn’t have strategies for making sense of why the faster bug would go on the bottom. Kids would quickly misidentify which line was which bug, and we’d have to back up and talk about that for a while before doing anything else.
  • So they didn’t really get a chance to engage with the math. And I wasn’t sure what the math exactly was, beyond this little tricky graph that puts time on the y-axis.
  • Also the formatting was tricky, because the ladybug/ant race happens on one page and the graph on the other. You don’t necessarily need cognitive science to tell you that swapping between two very separated images makes learning hard, but it does.

Each of the Illustrative Mathematics lessons has a Summary at the end of the lesson. It’s good, but meant as a reference — it’s not really designed for classroom use.

So here was my redesign idea:

  • Turn the summary into sample student work i.e. a worked example
  • Pair that with analysis prompts and a follow-up question i.e. an example-problem pair
  • Redesign the actual materials so that the graph and the race are next to each other

Here’s what I did:

Screen Shot 2019-10-28 at 1.12.16 PM.png

Rewriting 8.3.1Rewriting Ladybug and Ant

We used the original “warm up” from the materials. Then shifted into the example-based materials I created. Then the redesigned activity from the lesson itself.

It went well! Here’s how I know that it went well: most kids got to the extension questions, and the students were able to focus their on those.

That seems to me the basic tradeoff. If you leave ideas a bit more implicit, then kids will spend more time uncovering them. That can be good, mathematical thinking, of course. The other choice is to make things more explicit at the outset. Then, maybe you have a better shot of diving into what would otherwise be “advanced” “challenge” problems.

I usually make that second choice, and part of why is because I think good mathematical thinking can happen with the example-based materials I shared. After that warm-up (where I asked kids to notice as many details about the graphs as possible and didn’t really push the “wonder” question) I covered up the “student solution” and showed my students the “problem” I had created. Then, I uncovered the student work. There was a pause — followed by “oh!” and “ah that makes sense.” There’s a little mathematical thrill you get every time you figure something out — a few kids got that when I revealed the work.

Then I asked kids to talk about it with partner, and then to solve a similar problem with neighbors. I listened in on conversations and was able to figure out if kids were understanding the example or not. A few times I inserted myself into conversations to help. And then I led a discussion about the example where kids shared the following ideas:

  • That the ratio between the heights of points on each line that are directly atop each other stays equal.
  • That you could also compare points that are at the same horizontal.
  • That if the axes were swapped the top line would represent the faster racer, because then the top point covers more distance in the same time.

And the kids most eager to share were not the ones who usually solve problems with the most confidence (and therefore least likely to share if all of this had come through problem solving).

And then we did the activity that had given my kids trouble each year of the past, and they were able to be struggle productively i.e. they had the “compare points on the same vertical/horizontal” strategy. And they got to extension problems.

I’m going to keep looking for chances to do make this same trade.

On Knowing by Sarah Ruhl

From playwright Sarah Ruhl:

I worry that choosing the essay form implies that I know something. Because today, (it is, mind you, an extremely hot day,) I feel that I know next to nothing. Recently I met a mathematician who described himself as “the world’s leading expert on absolute and total ignorance.” Today, I stand with the mathematician. But the mathematician, while an expert in ignorance, also believed firmly and enthusiastically in the concept of progress.

And yet I must not believe in progress because I make theater. And theater, by its very nature, does not believe in progress. Because we must constantly go back to go forward. And theater, by its very nature, does not believe in absolute knowledge, because there are usually two characters talking and they usually believe different things, making knowledge a relative proposition. But increasingly in the American theater idiom we are led to believe that plays are about knowing. Or putting forward a thesis. Today, I stand humbly with the mathematician. I am not the world’s leading expert on absolute and total ignorance. But the importance of knowing nothing is underrated.

“An expert in ignorance” — this is a great perspective on mathematics, I think. It relates to some of my favorite strands of Karen Olsson’s The Weil Conjectures.

I’m loving Sarah Ruhl’s book 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time To Write, which I first learned of from Austin Kleon.

Review: The Weil Conjectures by Karen Olsson

The Weil Conjectures by Karen Olsson


I liked that this was a book full of questions, and I also liked the questions. Here are some of the questions she asks in the book:

  • Why do people like math?
  • Why did I (the author Karen Olsson) like math when I studied it in college? Even though I was an aspiring novelist?
  • Why was Simone Weil — philosopher, writer, mystic — attracted to mathematics?
  • What’s the deal with Simone’s relationship with her brother (famed mathematician) Andre?
  • Where do mathematical ideas come from?
  • What do (the author Karen Olsson) get out of abstract math now that I’m no longer swimming in it?
  • Do analogies for abstract mathematical ideas do a person any good if the math itself isn’t accessible to them?

It wouldn’t be fair to Olsson or the book to reduce it to a neat set of answers to those questions. The book is structured so as to provide an experience that is a lot like the experience of learning abstract math. The Weil Conjectures suppose a connection between two mathematical domains — topology and number theory — and Olsson wants (as far as I understand) to create a literary experience that is analogous to the search for such domain-bridging mathematical connections. So she lays out the Weil biography, her own memoir, mathematics and writing about mathematics for the reader. And I think she really succeeds — as the book goes on it feels a bit like learning some deep bit of theory.

So it’s not fair to reduce the book to a neat set of answers because the book is primarily about the experience of reading it. Some books are like that, and that’s fine. But she does answer some of those questions in interesting ways, and memory is necessarily structured, so it’s worth trying to say a bit about what Olsson says about mathematics itself.


Q: What do people love about abstract mathematics?

A: Attraction to the unknown itself.

That, I think, is as close as we can get to Olsson’s answer in brief. The mathematician is someone who desires to create unknowns and to put obstacles in the way of their knowing so that they can search for answers. So for instance we hear about a Kafka story (“The Top”) about a philosopher who seeks enlightenment by hoping to catch spinning tops in mid-spin (whatever). On this story Anne Carson says “he has become a philosopher (that is one whose profession is to delight in understanding) in order to furnish himself with pretexts for running after tops.” That’s what a mathematician is — they love the chase.

Q: Is this so different from what a writer does?

A: No.

And so there is a connection between Olsson’s 2.5 years studying mathematics in college and her life as a writer.

I love this take on mathematics — that it’s about this love of being in the dark and searching for light. So it’s more about finding light than the light itself, if that makes sense.

This should be seen (I think) in contrast with writers who make much of the beauty of mathematics, or the search for beauty. Olsson is good on this. Twenty years after finishing her degree she decides to go back and watch some online lectures for an Abstract Algebra class. She finds it remote and foreign, but also:

And still, it was beautiful. I’m ambivalent about expressing it that way — “beauty” in math and science is something people tend to honor rather vaguely and pompously–instead maybe I should say that still, it was very cool. (This is something the course’s professor, Benedict Gross, might say himself, upon completing a proof: “Cool? Very cool.”) A quality of both good literature and good mathematics is that they may lead you to a result that is wholly surprising yet seems inevitable once you’ve been shown the way, so that–aha!–you become newly aware of connections you didn’t see before.

Still, the mathematician’s next move is to plunge themselves into darkness. This comes from a desire towards something that cannot be grasped.

This part was hard for me to understand. A key for Olsson seems to be Anne Carson’s Eros the Bittersweet but the theory isn’t entirely clicking for me. “A mood of knowledge is emitted by the spark that leaps in the lover’s soul,” she writes but I don’t quite get. Olsson’s take: “It’s not the knowledge itself, not consummation but the mood, the excitement when you are on the verge of grasping.”

What I understand Olsson to be saying is that the main fun of math isn’t the understanding but the feeling that understanding might be near. And that explains the pleasure we non-experts get out of mathematical analogies. There’s nothing unusual about the idea that analogies give us the thrill of desire — what’s more novel is saying this isn’t so different than the usual state of a mathematician.

For this point she goes to the act of mathematical creation itself, and how unpredictable it is:

What does mathematical creation consist of? asks Poincare, who blazed his way through a large territory of mathematics and physics by relying on his remarkable geometric intuition. It requires not only the combining of existing facts but the avoiding of useless combinations: making the right choices. The facts worthy of study are those that reveal unsuspected relationships between other facts. Moreover, much of this combining and discarding and retrieving goes on without the mathematician’s full awareness, occurring instead behind the scrim of consciousness.

Since the mathematician is dependent on their unconscious associations, mathematical discovery is not entirely in their control. In fact, many suspected relationships don’t work out. And so the mathematician spends most of their time afflicted with that same desire for the unreachable that afflicts we, the non-technical lay audience, who only get analogies.

Analogy becomes a version of eros, a glimpse that sparks desire. “Intuition makes much of it; I mean by this the faculty of seeing a connection between things that in appearance are completely different; it does not fail to lead us astray quite often.” This of course, describes more than mathematics; it expresses an aspect of thinking itself–how creative thought rests on the making of unlikely connections. The flash of insight, how often it leads us off course, and still we chase after it.

It’s a neat picture, I think!

I’ve left out all the connections to mysticism, the biographical details of Simone and Andre, and (nearly) all the connections to writing, but that’s in there too. Again, very neat stuff.


I also learned from this book that Brouwer retired early and practiced nudism, that Flannery O’Connor didn’t particularly care for Simone Weil’s writing, and of Hadamard’s fascinating book “The Psychology of Invention in the Mathematical Field.”

One last good quote: “Honestly I think I understand anyone else’s dislike of math better than I understand whatever hold math has had on me.”

Some interesting things I learned from Robert Pondiscio’s book about Success Academy

Success Academy was originally supposed to be a copycat of Robert Slavin’s Success for All program.

Rich person Joel Greenblatt got interested in Slavin, and gave him a call.

“I gave him a call and basically said, ‘I’ve looked at your results, and you’re getting forty or fifty percent of kids reading, but it’s not ‘success for all,'” Greenblatt recalled telling Slavin. “‘I’m just a guy with money. Is it money?'”

Yes, Slavin replied; its just money–if the money is spent in the right way. But it’s difficult to maintain tight control in most public schools. The two agreed to try to find a school they could convince to put “Success for All on steroids,” as Greenblatt put it.

They took over a public school, got a charter, recruited Moskowitz, one thing led to another, etc., here we are today.

Eva Moskowitz hates too much direct instruction.

More than most charter school leaders of her stature, Moskowitz consistently sees and talks about schooling through a child’s lens. Too much direct instruction–explaining the steps to solve a math problem, for example, rather than guiding kids as they struggle and strategize–sets her off. “If you see a teacher, ‘Blah, blah, blah, blah,'” she says, pantomiming extreme boredom. Her tone has been restrained, her deliver pedantic, even when discussing charged topics like race, cheating the Charlotte Dial video. But now she grows animated, even agitated. “Who has seen a kid when their teacher keeps them on the rug for twenty-five minutes? They’re five, for God’s sakes! You try sitting on that rug for twenty-five minutes listening. That is an educational crime!”

I should note that the book is basically Pondiscio’s account of a year he spent observing Bronx 1, a Success Academy elementary school. It is focused entirely on the elementary years, which is too bad. They operate a lot of middle schools (and a few struggling high schools) and you don’t leave the book with any sense of how they work. The direct instruction is one thing, but another is the ra-ra spirit (Ford-ham! Stand! Up!) which every middle schooler I have ever met would hate.

Math at Success Academy is…progressive? Progressive-ish?

Here is the Kindergarten teacher at Bronx 1 speaking to parents:

Writing “27 + 14” on the classroom smartboard, she warns parents to expect “a totally different world of learning math. We all learned math this way,” she says, doing the sum while narrating her work: “Seven plus four is eleven; put the one here and carry the one.” She stops and turns back to the room. “What does ‘carry the one’ mean? I love that you’re giggling, mom,” she says to one parent. “Before I came here, I had no idea why I carried that one. I knew I couldn’t put it here“– she writes “11” below the stacked “7” and “4.” “I did a procedure. No one ever taught me the real reason.”

For now, she begs parents not to teacher their children “procedures.”

This is not a lone teacher. (The book makes clear that there are no lone teachers at SA.)

It’s also reflected in their curriculum which (believe it or not) is built on TERC!

The math curriculum is cobbled together from different sources: an off-the-shelf curriculum called TERC; Contexts for Learning, a “conceptual math” approach pioneered by Catherine Fosnot, an education professor at City College of New York; and “a variety of things we found on the Internet,” according to Stacey Gershkovich, who oversees math at Success.

That’s pretty progressive stuff! Though Pondiscio emphasizes that they do drill facts a lot.

I will quote extensively, because I was surprised by this whole passage.

In the fourth-grade wing, Kerri Lynch is teaching fractions. Because of its test scores, it is commonly assumed that math lessons at Success Academy resemble a Chinese cram school’s, with instruction focused exclusively on “drill and kill” to prepare kids for high-stakes tests. However, Moskowitz, the daughter of a mathematician, is a proponent of a conceptual approach; she derides “direct instruction” and other standard explanatory pedagogies, where kids learn and practice algorithms and formulas, as “math by card tricks.”

Sure, sure you say. Show me the classrooms.

Lynch’s students sit on assigned spots on the rug. “One thing we’ve worked on is to be able to compare fractions to landmark fractions, such as one half or one whole,” she begins. “Today, when I put up the two fractions you’re comparing, I don’t want you to show any work. I only want you to write if it’s less than, greater than, or equal to. Just the symbol.” With those minimal instructions, Lynch writes 1/8 and 1/10 on the board and watches as her students bend silently over their whiteboards. “I’m seeing that some of us very quickly know it,” she observes. “Go ahead and turn and talk with your partner. What knowledge of fractions did you apply to solve this question?” The chatter rises as Lynch circulates, asking questions, drawing students out, and listening to their explanations, making mental notes about which students she will ask to “share out” with the class.

As the discussion goes on, the explanations gradually grow more economical and precise…Lynch raises the rigor. She writes 3/4 and 7/8 on the board. With no common denominator or numinator the answer is less obvious, but she offers a hint: “Matthew, what you said about ‘closer to one whole’ might be helpful. Turn and talk with your partner.” The room breaks into passionate arguments: “They’re equal!” “Seven-eighths is more!” “Only one piece is left to get it to one whole!” “No they are equal! They’re both only one pieces to a whole!” “But this one’s a smaller piece to a whole.”

Lynch’s ears perk up. “What did you just say? They’re both one away from a whole? How much further away from a whole? I want you to share that,” she says to Matthew.

Jo Boaler would be proud! (Steve Leinwand is.)

Eva Moskowitz is fond of saying that Success Academy is “Catholic School on the outside, Bank Street on the inside.” That is not true, because all the behavioral reinforcements and super-obsessive rules are very not Bank Street. But you can sort of see what she means.

Success Academy uses Fountas and Pinnell’s Leveled Reading System, and they generally spend a lot of time on reading skills (something researchy-types don’t care for)

Success Academy follows the “leveled reading’ system developed by reading researchers Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell, which starts at Level A early in kindergarten and reaches Level Z, usually by the end of eighth grade.

They also use it in a way not recommended by Fountas and Pinnell, which is to give each kid a specific and highly publicized reading level. There’s a scene where a kid excitedly goes around telling teachers that she is “Level L” and again I wonder what their middle school looks like because this culture? Doesn’t work for older kids, right?

Systematically building background knowledge is not an explicit aim of Success Academy’s ELA curriculum. I had long assumed that its ELA curriculum played a significant role, even a dominant one, in the network’s standardized test results. But when the network made its curriculum available for free online in 2017, the response among experts who emphasize the importance of knowledge-rich curriculum was muted. “Kindergartners spend all but one of their seven units supposedly developing skills–like the ‘skill’ of reading nonfiction–and those at higher grade levels get only one or two more units per year that are content-based,” observed education journalist Natalie Wexler, who noted that the lessons posted on the website “sound very similar to the fruitless exercises that are found in classrooms across the country. Teachers jump from one topic to another, using content merely as a delivery mechanism for skills, and then students are sent off to ‘practice’ the skills on books they choose themselves.”

These are the most important quotes in the book.

There’s a meeting for parents who either won or were declared “likely” to gain an admissions spot for their kid. The meeting asks parents to consider whether Success is right for them.

Then, almost as an afterthought, Reeder mentions transportation. Success Academy does not offer buses. For some parents the logistics of getting a child to and from school present an even bigger challenge than complying with culture demands, reading logs and homework. Every Wednesday, children are dismissed at 12:30 so that staff can attend their professional development sessions. “That’s something else you gotta keep in mind, “Reeder adds. “‘Will I be able to pick up my child on time? Will I be able to have somebody to support me with that?’ School lets out at 3:45 but every Wednesday is “12:30 no matter what.” She hits “12” and “30” hard, hammering the point home. “And we do not have after-school, so you guys have to figure that out.”

The meeting lasts just under an hour, but it opens a portal into the model and culture that explain in no small part the network’s consistent results across its schools. Suddenly it all makes sense: The common criticism leveled at Moskowitz and her schools is that they cherry-pick students, attracting bright children and shedding the poorly behaved and hardest to teach. This misses the mark entirely. Success Academy is cherry-picking parents. Parents who are not put off by uniforms, homework, reading logs and constant demands on their time, but who view those things as evidence that here, at last, is a school that has its act together. Parents who are not upset by tight discipline and suspensions but who are grateful for them, viewing Success Academy as a safe haven from disorderly streets and schools. Charter schools cannot screen parents to ensure culture fit, but the last hour in the auditorium is a close proxy for such an effort, galvanizing disciplines and warning off the indifferent and uncommitted. A the same time, there is something undeniably exclusionary about it. If you don’t have the resources to get your child to school by 7:30 and pick her up at 3:45  — at 12:30 on Wednesdays — Success Academy is not for you. Literally.

Pondiscio makes much of research showing that parental factors make a big difference on the success of low-income students. Parental involvement, two-family homes, strong religious faith are all factors that help. The claim is that Success Academy is essentially selecting for these families in low-income neighborhoods.

Nobody likes talking about it in this book, but also nobody seems to deny it. It’s the unspoken but obvious, glaring fact about Success Academy. It’s a point neatly summed up towards the end of the book:

One former Success Academy school leader was philosophical about all this. “Is it really such a bad thing that this is basically an elite private school that admits by lottery?” he asked. “It’s the first time folks in the inner city have had that chance.”

So it’s not curriculum, not the teaching, not the teachers? Not even the test prep? It’s just selection effects?

Well, mostly selection effects. There are a few other things in the secret sauce. The thing that’s well-known is the intense and systematic behavior management. What I didn’t know about was the entirely sensible division of labor. Principals focus entirely on teachers and students — they have an “ops” person for administrative stuff. The curriculum may not have impressed Pondiscio, but its existence does impress him. The curriculum meets whatever minimal threshold it needs to be to free teachers up to focus on going over student work, calling parents and working with kids. That’s good, in general!

But, yeah, mostly selection effects.

Oh, and my school got a shout out.

The oft-heard refrain at Success to “put the lift on students” and to socialize learning, encouraging children to work collectively in pairs or small groups, is the kind of teaching one would expect to see at Bank Street, Saint Ann’s, or any of the progressive private schools beloved by affluent New Yorkers.

That doesn’t exactly nail the culture of Saint Ann’s but whatever! Not his point.

This is a good interview.

Check it out.

The book was a very good read and very much worth reading. Interesting, provocative, rooted in entirely realistic school observations, it’s definitely worth checking out.

Discovery learning vs. not discovery learning


I think at this point, if you’re reading a math blog, you probably have an opinion about the place of discovery (or inquiry or guided inquiry or problem solving or whatever) versus fully guided instruction (or direct instruction or Direct Instruction or explicit instruction or Explicit Direct Instruction).

(By the way, Ed Realist does a nice job trying to clarify the terminological situation here.)

But the thing is that it is difficult to talk about this in a way that is clear and accessible. I was thinking about this while reading Jasmine’s latest post, which lays out what cognitive science researchers say on the matter. Jasmine and I are on the same page, and she is faithful to the researchers, but I felt myself inclined to express these views in a slightly different way. Not necessarily even better; just different.

(By the way, Jasmine is a first-year teacher and new blogger. She’s on the blogroll.)

So here is how I would put it:

Every mathematician and scientist, as far as I can tell, is clear about just how messy their research is. I am very fond of this account from mathematician Andrew Wiles:

Perhaps I could best describe my experience of doing mathematics in terms of entering a dark mansion. You go into the first room and it’s dark, completely dark. You stumble around, bumping into the furniture. Gradually, you learn where each piece of furniture is. And finally, after six months or so, you find the light switch and turn it on. Suddenly, it’s all illuminated and you can see exactly where you were. Then you enter the next dark room…

You think it’s true…then it’s not…then you waste a morning trying to prove something that in fact is not true and not strictly necessary for proving the thing you actually care about. Then you feel despair, so you take a break and do something else. A week later you come back and you feel stupid — the thing is now obviously true, and you know why — and that feels good! But that’s just Part 1. So on to Part 2…

Here’s the question, and it’s a fundamental one: do you think it’s a good idea to put your students in this situation, or not?

If you say “yeah! kids need to learn how to do this sort of thing” then you will be a fan of discovery and inquiry and problem solving and etc. If you say “wait, no, this doesn’t sound like a good way to make kids feel” then you will strongly dislike discovery and inquiry.

I feel as if that’s almost all there is to say. It pretty much comes down to that.


There is of course a bit more, though. It’s probably easiest to present it in terms of a dialogue. Basically, cognitive science has a bunch of counter-arguments to arguments in support of the “yeah!” view above. Here’s how the dialogue goes.

Q: You don’t like discovery/inquiry/asking students to do math the way research mathematicians and scientists do?

A: That is right, I do not.

Q: But how will students learn to do research-y things if you don’t teach them?

A: “Do research-y things” is not really a skill. Neither is “creatively problem solve” or “think mathematically.” We don’t have evidence that any of these things can be taught to students, except alongside particular mathematical or scientific content. The things you really need to do research-y things that can be taught is a tremendous store of flexible, sturdy knowledge. That’s the best thing you can do to give your kids a leg up.

Q: But that’s demotivating! It’s boring to learn a discipline that way, and the genuine ways of learning are more motivating.

A: Bad teaching will always be demotivating, but there are lots of examples of the “boring” approaches being highly motivating. One way you see this is when an intervention measures affect, i.e. how kids feel about a thing.

But honestly if kids aren’t motivated, they won’t learn, and we have evidence that the more explicit approaches help kids learn. Shrug.

Q: So you think that kids never need a chance to apply their knowledge?

A: Yo, I did not say that.

Q: Yeah you did.

A: No, I did not. Here’s what I think. There’s evidence that when a student has less experience with something, they need a lot of explicit instruction about how to do that thing. Worked examples are a really, really sturdy format for people with little experience in a thing. If a student has never learned how to factor quadratic functions, a good way to start can be to show them examples of factoring quadratic functions. Then, ask them to use the example to solve a problem. And then show another example, and then give them some more practice. And then mix-up the practice, or ask them to apply what they’ve learned in a new context.

And then, the next day, do more stuff like that.

And then on the third day, maybe ask them to solve some problems on their own, and see how that goes.

And if it’s going well, who knows! In a week or so, maybe they’ll be ready to apply these skills to a challenging problem in class. Or maybe it’ll take a few weeks. The point is that as kids get more experienced with a set of skills, they are more ready to take on challenges.

Q: Thank you for saying “challenges,” I like challenges.

A: No problem. The point is where you start. And that’s genuinely controversial! But we believe (see: evidence) that starting with fully explicit instructions like worked examples gives newbies the help that they need. Starting a unit with a vague activity that students aren’t sure how to handle isn’t giving them the help they need.

Q: Does this take into account motivation?

A: No and yes.

No, it doesn’t take into account motivation. Do you have some amazing, super-motivating activity that kids love and that will super-charge a unit of study? Do you start a unit on quadratics with this amazing activity that helps the whole thing get started on a great note? No, the evidence does not take this into consideration. It just notes that it’s hard to find clear evidence of a learning benefit of this sort of thing.

But, yes, this does take into account motivation, because in the long-run there isn’t really any evidence that motivation is easily separable from achievement. So ultimately something like a worked example does a lot of good for motivation, because it helps struggling students understand the material and participate as an equal in your classroom.

Michael Pershan: Can I step in here for a second?

Q: Sure.

MP: I would only add that though there is no evidence for this, I do think a certain amount of variety is healthy in a classroom. Like, kids do get bored if you do the same thing day after day. But, two things. First, if you’re starting with something like fully worked examples and moving to interesting, challenging practice, your kids are getting variety. Second, go ahead, take a day and do something interesting and different. Variety is good! There are lots of interesting practice formats, though we don’t talk enough about that.

That’s all I want to add here.

Q: OK, but here’s the thing. I just want kids to be able to think like mathematicians/scientists in school. That’s the goal I care about. That’s what I think is most valuable. And I don’t even necessarily care if it is helping them do that stuff in the future. You tell me that these skills can’t be taught — OK! You also tell me that there is no real benefit to their skills from these kinds of experiences — that’s OK too! All that I want is for kids to be doing something meaningful in school. Yes, I want to make sure their test scores are OK and they can get into college, but beyond that I want kids to do something they care about. 

There are two answers to this last question, which is what I think this discussion sometimes comes down to.

  1. There comes a point where people just disagree on what they value. It’s hard to know what to say by the time someone gets to this point of clarity about what they care about.
  2. It’s a mistake to assume that regular, “boring” school is not meaningful. And it’s also a mistake to assume that regular, “boring” learning is not meaningful. As I’ve written in the past, mathematicians ask for help all the time, and a lot of cutting edge work is simply focused on understanding things, not on solving a particular problem.

But I guess I’d point out that there are three things going on.

There’s a certain picture of what research mathematicians and scientists do and what their culture is like.

There’s a view about what is most effective for learning and motivation.

And then there is a view about whether it sounds like a good idea to put kids under the conditions of researchers in class.

And cognitive science research is relevant for the second, the efficacy question. And there is a value question, about what you think is worth doing in school.

But for me the decisive point is that the work of learning skills and knowledge is meaningful, and you can see this also in the culture of mathematicians and scientists. It’s just not right that learning skills isn’t meaningful to students.

How do you make yourself nicer?

I’m not, like, some expert on philosophy. But I have a degree in it! I took a bunch of ethics classes in college, ethics is great. I love ethics. You can quote me on that.

Here’s a question we never studied and nobody ever asked in an ethics class: how do you become a better person?

We talked (often endlessly) about what it means to be a better person, sure. How do you know if you’re a good person or not, what is a good action, is there really such a thing as good/bad. (Philosophy is all about those italics.)

How a person actually goes about the actual process of going from an OK person to a better person along any dimension is, apparently, not a question of philosophy at all. I can’t name a single philosopher I read who says much about it at all. Maybe that’s a limitation of my reading, maybe not, I don’t know, but doesn’t that say something?

I am also a religious person and was raised religious, but I’m only interested in the secular version of this question. Of the religious texts I’ve studied there are a few that tackle the question of moral self-improvement, but it’s still pretty vague. The most explicit Jewish writing about becoming more ethical is from the mussar movement and they are…intense and weird? Though sometimes insightful?

So let’s say that you woke up one morning and realized you were a jerk. You’d been denying it for years, but it’s time to get honest. You’re mean to people, and for no reason at all. You get angry — not “murder” angry but not-nice angry, and with some frequency. You have relationships, but it’s increasingly clear that these are people who tolerate and recognize your flaws. Because you’re not all bad — but you’re mean, and a bit of a jerk.

You realize this, and make a commitment to do something about it. It’s time, gosh darn it! (You’re working on your language, too.)

What exactly would you do about it?

[Oh, by the way, please nobody mention The Good Place to me. It’s good, I like it.]

Here are the only plausible things I can think of that might help you be nicer.

  1. Keep a diary about your efforts. But I have no idea how that would help. Maybe it would slow down your quick thinking so your slow brain could take control…is that how people get better? Their rationality just lashes out at the emotions, until emotions grow docile and tame? Look, maybe.
  2. Maybe you need a role model? I’ve sometimes felt myself be nicer to others after reading a biography about a really good person. For a few days that person lives in my head, asking questions like “What would Abraham Lincoln do?” or “Can you imagine what Gandhi would think of that?” The problem is that after a few days I go back to normal. But maybe there is a way to keep their presence around? If you wanted to be nicer, maybe spend some time each morning thinking about a really really nice person? I don’t know, I’m making this up.
  3. Put up sticky notes everywhere? But everything eventually loses its force and fades into the background.
  4. Study ethical texts with regularity? Not because they’ll help you manage complicated moral issues (though maybe they will) but because it’s a way to keep things fresh and interesting while still giving you a regular reminder that you’re aiming to be better?

I have no idea. I don’t think I’m a jerk, but I’d like to be a better father/husband/son/friend/teacher/person, sure. I don’t know how much I care — probably not enough. Most of us don’t care, though we probably should, as Eric Schwitzgebel argues.

I’ve looked around, there seems to be practically no empirical work on any of these questions. Moral psychology is the name of the field to look in, but they steer clear of the developmental question. I assume there’s a good reason, it veers too closely to “in this study I started a cult”, or it’s unstudiable for some other reason.

But this seems like a shame for our jerk, and for all of us too. Don’t we want to study the actual process of moral improvement? For are we not all jerks, wishing just a bit that we were a little better?