Saturday, June 18, 2011

Putting myself in my kids' shoes

I always preach mathematical fearlessness to my kids, my colleagues, and just about anyone who will listen. I go on and on about the importance of being able to sit with a new problem for more than 5 minutes, or even 5 days, and mulling it over, poking around, trying whatever you can to solve it without giving up or losing interest or Googling the answer. I always want my students to try something in lieu of just staring, and I am usually stingy with hints.

One thing - quite possibly the only thing - I miss about math grad school is the feeling of sitting down and figuring out a really, really difficult problem. At the time it felt a bit like "intellectual masturbation" because that's all I would do and I felt like I was contributing absolutely nothing to the world, but it definitely helped me develop my mathematical fearlessness. Since I started teaching it is rare that I actually sit down with a truly challenging problem and force myself to think it through from start to finish. So much of what I do is in a rush - I don't have time to really think about a problem because I am trying to plan two lessons for the next day, so instead I think about it for 5 minutes and then look at how someone else did it. Shameful, I know. The question presented itself to me: Can I actually practice what I preach? Am I still mathematically fearless?

My office-mate presented me with this problem about a week ago: You have a square dartboard. What is the probability that a randomly-thrown dart will land closer to the center of the dartboard than to an edge?

I sat down to solve it and was absolutely stumped. I had no idea where to start besides drawing a little picture. Said office-mate told me that he had banged his head against the wall and couldn't figure it out, which made me a little disheartened because I consider him to be a much more clever problem solver than I am. [Lesson one about how my kids feel: It's difficult for them to actually believe in their abilities when they look around and see classmates who they consider to be "smarter" who are also struggling with the problem.]

I took the problem home and presented it to my boyfriend, who really is the smartest math guy I know. He struggled with it for a little bit, went inside the bedroom, and came out about 30 minutes later announcing that he had solved it and that he would not tell me how he did it. Fine. Be that way. At that point I was still really struggling; I didn't even feel like I had a solid starting point. I went into the bedroom and I have to admit that I glanced over at his clipboard where he had solved the problem and saw some nasty math that I didn't like. My heart sunk even more. [Lesson 2 about how my kids feel: When they see another student's solution and don't immediately understand it - and how could you really immediately understand someone else's solution to a problem? - they tend to give up because they think that they could never think of that solution. The thought doesn't even cross their mind that maybe they can come up with another way to solve the problem.]

So I gave up for a few days, thinking about the problem a little bit here and there but never hard enough so that I'd feel like a failure if I didn't figure it out. [Lesson 3: Not trying hard is how kids avoid feeling like failures.] This went on until yesterday afternoon. My boyfriend and I spent the afternoon at my favorite neighborhood coffee shop, basking in the San Diego sunshine. I was working on my end-of-year comments when I suddenly remembered the dartboard problem. I asked him to tell me how he had solved it. He looked at me somewhat disappointedly. "Really? But then you'll never keep thinking about it your way." At that point I still didn't have a "way" but a small fire lit inside of me - How could I not have a "way"? Some idea, some line of reasoning? What would I say to a kid who asked me for a help with a problem and didn't have anything of his own to show? So I told him to wait a sec, and I took out a piece of paper and started working. I came up with what seemed like a great solution with a simple answer. Boyfriend checked the work and agreed, but then asked me to look over his solution because he had gotten a completely different answer and had been sure he was correct. As he was explaining it, he immediately found an error in his reasoning which made his method quite complex to carry out. However, we then went back to my method and found an error, so we worked it through again together. I now have a solution that I'm pretty happy with and that is completely different from his solution, and it feels so good that it is mine. He was right - if I had looked at his solution first, I would have never had the guts or desire to come up with my own. [Lesson 4: The lengthy process really is worth it! Any human being - teacher, student, adult - feels amazing after coming up with a clever answer to a problem that once seemed insurmountable.]

I would be happy to post my solution if anyone is interested; I would also like feedback because I wouldn't say I'm 100% confident. More importantly, though, I feel like this was an exercise in my own mathematical fearlessness. I gained a new respect for my students. As I know they do, I felt anxious, inadequate, and angry at various points in this problem-solving process. My new question is: How can I better support them so that they actually want to stick it out until the end?