Saturday, January 8, 2011

Those Who Can, Don't Teach

My personal credo is: "Why take something at face value when it can be overanalyzed to the point of unrecognizability?"

I apply this belief to all aspects of my life. And, truthfully, there are very few facets of every day living that couldn't benefit from a thorough and methodical rethinking of its basic tenets.

Except when it comes to elementary school.

Let me back up. I come from an era where I don't think we were actually taught to do very much. I have no memory of anything academic ever being "explained" to me. Either teachers were lazy or just assumed we could figure it out eventually. For my early grammar school years, I attended a very 1970s progressive school where grades were mixed together and we "learned at our own pace." I recall sitting at my desk with stacks of index cards with various lessons on them, and flipping them over to see whether I got the answer right. I usually did. I was one of those kids who always liked school and, for a variety of reasons, attended quite a few different schools, so I have some basis for comparison. If you got the answer right, it was a good thing. I don't know what happened if you didn't because, frankly, I almost always got the answer right. I aced elementary school.

In school, I loved math. I liked to do calculations in my head and got a big kick out of numbers in every day life. I always loved baseball at the beginning of the season to see how a batter's average would go from 1.000 to .250 in the course of one game. A bummer for him, but awesome for me. This love of statistics was thwarted during graduate school, however, when the manipulation of digits stopped representing anything interesting or useful.

So when I became a parent to a school-aged child who also had an affinity for numbers, I assumed that I would be the best homework-helping mom ever. What I may lack as a moral compass or role model for my child I can make up for as an adjunct math helper. My role as parent would be redeemed through long division.

First and second grade were a piece of cake, cementing, in my mind, my reputation as a leader among tutoring moms. I demonstrated unparalleled excellence in quizzing my son on his addition tables. He was a natural, of course. Subtraction. No problem. Multiplication tables? Score! My son, the offspring of two Ph.D.s, clearly had the math gene.

Things took a precarious turn in third grade. Not for my son, but for me. He continued to solve long-division and other equations. But there was a new wrinkle added to the mix by the public school system: Students had to show how they got their answers. My son proved adept at getting the correct answers, but was not as great at showing his work. We are a family of head-calculators. I can quickly tabulate the tip on a 5-course meal in my head, but frankly would be lost if I had to note how I came up with the answer. When the task fell to me to model for him how to show the process, my answer was always: "I don't know how to explain why that is the answer. It just is." Tragically, elementary school teachers are not big fans of this explanation.

The situation further deteriorated with word problems. As a psychologist (and avowed over-thinker), I try to take the context into account when solving such problems: Why is Beth selling seven cupcakes at the school bake sale? Did she make 12, but ate five of them? What is the school raising money for? Did Charles make the oatmeal cookies or did his parent buy them at the supermarket? So perhaps you can understand why my poor son has resorted to slogging through these problems solo.

This inability to conceptualize grade school work is not limited to just math. Although I love math, I was actually an English major and if there is anything I am more obsessive about than numbers it is deconstructing sentences. One day my son came home with a reading comprehension passage for which he had missed one of the answers. There were four options, and he chose "B." So that left A,C,D. To me, the passage did not provide an adequate foundation from which to make any of the selected assumptions. However, being a veteran of many, many standardized tests, I dumbed down my thought process and selected "C." My husband, also a master of analysis, looked at the passage and selected "D."  We then spent a good 15 minutes justifying our answers to each other, but we all remained unconvinced not only about the others' selections, but about our own. This was the one instance where I put aside my "no providing homework excuses" policy to pen a note to the teacher that I apologize, but three intelligent minds, including a savvy 8-year-old, two Ph.D.s and an Ivy League English major could not come to a meeting of the minds.


  1. Oh no! I bet things will only get worse! Although as a teacher I love it when parents contact me for answers, to solve problems, query things etc.
    I get your cupcake quandry too- I think this is why I can't watch the tennis, I'm too busy looking at all the body language, how many times they pull their shirt, how they interact with the ball boys and girls to concentrate on the actual game!

  2. Hi, Josie! I remember when I was in high school rolling my eyes at my mother because she didn't remember the French she had learned in school decades earlier. Now I have an elementary school child who is probably already rolling his eyes at me because of my inability to be of any help :(. Take care! Karen