Liberation Math Week 7: Easy Now

I have a tendency to make things hard, and I wonder if you have the same issue.

Almost everyone in an academic environment gets behind at some point during the semester. I have watched students do this for years. Typically a student starts to get behind, feels bad about themselves, and the bad feeling makes it hard to work and the student falls further behind. After an episode like this, a student will often come to me apologetically, promising to do better, and telling me about how they are going to get caught up soon and will keep up after that. The trouble with that is that it rarely happens. I think it’s a bit like how dieting causes weight gain. For the most part, we all want to do well when we take a class, and when our actions run counter to that goal, then something is going on. Maybe we really don’t want to engage with the course, and so we avoid the work because we don’t want to do it. Maybe we have more on our plate that we can handle, so we start letting go of things, coping with feeling overwhelmed through avoidance. Maybe we feel bad when we do work for the course because we don’t think our work is good enough, so we avoid possible failure by avoiding the work. I do each and every one of these, and more. We all do, because we are only human.

The Fables of Aesop

We all know we’re supposed to be the ant, right? (Photo credit: dierken).  Currently listening to Easy Now by Edie Carey 

I think we actually use our tendency to get angry at and disappointed with ourselves to give us an excuse to do even more avoiding. Sure, you may be letting yourself down, but if you feel really awful about it, then that gives you a little distraction from the fact that you really do have a dream or a goal and your actions are hurting that dream. We can’t get out of the hole by feeling really awful, or by making a vow that now we are going to be perfect and we will never fall behind again (that’s making promises that our future self doesn’t want to keep any more than our present self does). There’s really only one way out: Take one step. Taking an action that points your feet in the right direction, an action that gets you moving, that’s the only way out. Any one real action right now can make things better.

I’m talking about this as if it’s a student problem, and it’s not. Everyone does this, and we all deal with it in different ways. I deal by staying really busy and pushing myself hard. Then when I get overwhelmed I have an excuse to throw up my hands and give up since there’s not enough time to really set things right. If it is true that the only way through is to take the next step, then maybe I should make the next step easy, rather than hard, which is my natural inclination. In fact, I’ve decided to let everything be easy. Ironically, that’s not easy to do. It runs counter to what I’ve been taught in my years of school and what I’ve taught my students since I graduated and became a “source of knowledge” (note to readers: use an ironic tone in your mind when reading that last phrase). We all know that the secret to success is hard work and that “practice makes perfect.” Particularly in math, I have always believed that lots of practicing is absolutely essential if you want to do math. The trouble is that I’m starting to think it’s a bit more complicated that that.

In K-18 education, we have students practice by giving them homework, and there are arguments both that homework is “good for kids” and homework is “bad for kids” with research about the impact of homework on achievement (grades, test scores) backing up the different sides. But is achievement what we really care about? In K-18 we care about grades and tests because grades and tests will serve as a signal to future schools and employers that they should pick us for their team. If we can get the right GPA, degree, or test score,  the promise is that we can have something that we want in to future (like a great job), so achievement is something we care about when we think about the future.

But what about our current selves? Do we really have to wait to a diploma or degree to have what we want in life? Sometimes the answer is “yes” — for instance, if a master’s degree will get you a promotion and raise, then you really want that marker of achievement, and that may be enough of a goal to sustain you along the way. But for many of us the game of grades and tests is stressful, scary, unpleasant, and hard, even if it is necessary. Many of us need something to care about something besides achievement in order to make it through all of those difficult tasks, to make things a bit easier. We also arguably need to care about something other than achievement in order to make our school experiences truly transformational. So, if its not achievement that turns our cranks, then what is the point of homework, practicing, and all that hard work? If we have an authentic purpose, aside from achievement maybe we don’t have to slog through the drudgery. For instance, if you want to launch a rocket, you might need to test out configurations and do hundreds of calculations, but its not practice and it doesn’t have to be hard. True, it may take time, your path to that rocket launch may not be direct, and you may sometimes be very frustrated, but you don’t have to drive yourself forward, convinced that if you don’t keep your nose to the grindstone, you’ll never get there. Some of your best ideas will come when you distract yourself and take time for play, and you can have faith in your dream and keep taking that next step.

As a teacher, when I worry that my students aren’t “getting it,” my inclination is to do to my students just what I do to myself: push harder. I do the same thing to my kids; when things aren’t going well I make more demands, thinking that pressure is really what they need (that, and lectures too). I do the same thing to myself — when I feel that I am “behind” or that I want to be doing something more or different, I remind myself that I’m lazy and that I really need to push myself hard if I want to have my dreams. After all, I did watch three TV shows last night rather than working on this blog post.

What if I stopped doing this? What if when I feel really bad about what I’m not doing, I think back to my big goal, remind myself that the work really is easy and pleasurable, and just get myself to engage for 15 minutes and then take my TV break? What if instead of lecturing and threatening my kids, I remind them of how great they really are at the things I’m wanting them to do? And in the classroom, what if I point out to my students what they are doing well and find a way to increase my connection to them, believing for them that it is going to be easy to re-engage with the class and get over the obstacles in their path? No, none of these would be perfect solutions, but expecting things to be perfect never really gets me anywhere.

My questions for all of you: Why do teachers have students do work outside of class? That is, what is the purpose of practicing the math concept, reading the article, writing the paper, or whatever else we are asking students to do in K-18 classrooms? Is the work we assign the most effective way to reach our goals? Is the solution to difficulty to work harder? Do you believe that you should work harder? What do you do when you “get behind?”

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10 thoughts on “Liberation Math Week 7: Easy Now

  1. suevanhattum says:

    I’m not going to talk as a teacher here, but as a writer. Writing my blog posts is easy. I have an idea, I start writing, I link to things (what a cool new part of writing that is!), and maybe I make a diagram. I go away for a few hours or days, come back and edit, and then I press the publish button. So satisfying!

    But writing my chapters for the book I’m editing is so hard! I make those promises to myself, and then spend most of my “writing time” wandering around online. But on Tuesday I took one little step, and yesterday, I took two more, and my chapter on supporting girls (in math) is coming along. It’s still not done, and today is the last day I can dedicate to it. But I think I created some momentum for myself with the little steps I’ve taken.

    Writing papers in college was hard because there was an audience of one – the teacher – who was going to be rushing through 40 papers, trying to get done with the job of grading. I know many people will read and enjoy the chapter I’m writing, but it’s still super hard. I wish I understood why.

    I hope this isn’t too off-topic…

  2. vpiercey says:

    I have a related question – when we ask students to do homework, are we rewarding them for the type of thinking that we want them to do?

    I think that in most math courses, the assigned homework consists of a set of cookie-cutter problems together with maybe a couple of slightly more conceptual non cookie-cutter problems. Most students that do their homework do so in one push and burn out before they reach the “interesting” problems. Those that do get to the end with energy to spare don’t know how to start the problem.

    After all of this, we create quizzes and exams based on —- the homework!

    I think the idea is that those “interesting” problems are supposed to stimulate the type of critical and strategic thinking that we are looking for. The issue is that after running through a number of routine problems, students are not in the right frame of mind to think creatively. They are looking to finish the problem, and are caught in that mindset where before they even put pencil to paper they feel they have to be on the right track with no errors.

    If we truly want to reward students for critical and strategic thinking, we should ask them to do that directly in assignments that are separated from the more traditional problems that are part of the course curriculum.

    Here is an example. In my precalculus, my students are starting trig identities. On Monday, I am going to assign my first attempt at a “focus on strategy” assignment. In this assignment, the students are going to be required to write down at least 2 ways to start a given problem (there are only 5 problems in the assignment). Then they are supposed to attempt the problem starting with each of the initial steps they list. Finally, they are required to look back and rank their strategies.

    The next class period, I am going to give them a more traditional trig identities problem set.

    I have to say that I am very excited to see where this leads!

  3. clenora says:

    Wow! Great post. This post made me think about many different things. I thought about math and the practice of math. As a child I have always assumed that I was bad at all math. When I entered the Navy, I was sent to purchasing school and BPA (Blanket Purchase Agreement) class and got certified as a buyer for the Govt. My job in the Navy when not in SAR (search and rescue) was an Optar Manager. In civilian terms I was an accountant. I was practicing math on a daily basis. I bacame very good at my job despite the notion that I was “Bad” at math. Never in a million years would I have imagined that I would be capable of even poorly performing this job. So practice in math is vaulable. I hate homework. But I believe that it is neccessary in building strong work ethics toward a productive and rewarding life. I am speaking for our Western society ofcourse. I have enjoyed much of the homework in libmath, especially the practical problems. I have also REALLY enjoyed working out problems as a group in class. I think that if my experience with math throughout my childhood was like that of this class, maybe my earlier feelings on math would have been different. I like encouragement and enthusiasm. What kid wouldn’t want to try harder with encouragement and a teacher that is enthusiastic about the subject. J. Morin

  4. foreverplus1day says:

    I found this post very interesting, probably because I felt I could strongly identify with a lot of the points that were made. As a student, I can honestly say I have felt the sense of guilt and difficulty that was mentioned. I find that personally, when I think about a task, or a project, etc. I tend to think of it as one huge sum: I think of the entire mass of the project and not the fact that it can (and should) be done in smaller increments. This causes me to feel (I say “feel”, rather than “think”, because sometimes I’ll even refuse to go as far as consciously thinking about the huge task at hand) that the project can never get done, or that it can and will…but not until tomorrow because I’m not going to work on it yet. I tend to have the idea in my head that tomorrow is a new day, and things will be 100% better in the morning, and I’ll be productive, and wake up early and get all my work done. I have this constant idea of, “Oh it’ll happen tomorrow”, and then of course, we all know what happens next. This is an area that I feel I am not making improvements in. In fact, sometimes it feels as if I am becoming less and less “in control”. Which leads to feeling even more guilt/shame about not getting the work done, exactly as this post pointed out. Although this comment did not touch on each question posed at the end of this post, I felt it was important (and relevant) to the above. In writing it, I feel perhaps even more aware of everything I try to avoid, and everything that could make this easier for myself.

    -Ariel

  5. smelfi603 says:

    I think the idea of homework is a very interesting, and also large conversation(as you mentioned before that there are tests backing up both sides of the argument) I think that homework in moderation is a good thing. It is a way to get the student to keep interacting on the problem at hand. it also gives them time to interact with these ideas on there own, a time were they can reflect on how they actually feel about this subject. I can agree that at times homework can be daunting and getting behind is a feeling like you are digging yourself a hole. i think that each person has a different way of reaching there goals and it’s hard for me to even say what the best way of reaching them are. I believe that if i spend even just a small amount of time a day thinking about my art work then i’m doing ok. I will write down notes and ideas, or have a conversation with other people about my idea and how they relate to it. There is also the putting this idea into action and I make sure that each week I have a set amount of time to be able to work on it. usually I end up working on it more then just that one day, because I find time, because I want to succeed. Knowing that I will have time to work on my project helps me feel more relaxed about it and not pressured. I feel this way about all my classes. I know that sundays (today!) is my work day i have all day off and I know I can get everything done, I also can work on stuff during the week when I find time but knowing that I will get it done at least on Sunday puts me at ease.

  6. Angela Vierling-Claassen says:

    Thanks everyone for such great comments.

    Sam’s comment made me realize that one of the issues I have is the way we (have to?) spend so much of our time in education forcing students to do things. Because to move forward students I think will naturally be continuing to engage. But we can’t let it be natural, we have to force it, which causes all of us to resist it. Is there any way around that? I’m really not sure. I know that I often have to force myself to do things. I have to work on taxes tonight, and my taxes are a real bear. If there wasn’t a deadline I wouldn’t do them. I kind of need to be forced. I think some tasks are just kind of like that. We don’t want to do them, but we have to anyway. I just wish education wasn’t as much like that.

    I also like Sam’s thought that “if I spend even just a small amount of time a day thinking about my art work then I’m doing ok” — I think that’s right on, and I know that I would do well to embrace it. Sometimes we have to do big pushes, but most of the time its the small effort that we can keep up that pays off.

    I also like Julia’s ideas about homework producing a strong work ethic. Personally, I think I’d phrase this as being able to trust myself. When I go through periods where I am slacking off and letting too many things slip, I stop trusting myself that I’ll do what I say I am going to do. And then I kind of spiral down. I have to be able to trust myself, and I think trust in that small consistent effort that really pays off.

    But it seems like we also need to build in the ability to recover. Like Ariel said, we all have hit that place where we keep saying “I tend to have the idea in my head that tomorrow is a new day, and things will be 100% better in the morning, and I’ll be productive, and wake up early and get all my work done.” And it doesn’t work because the next day is never going to be that magic time. Instead we have to find a way to accept ourselves where we are and with what we can do That means we need to forgive ourselves for not being perfect, and in an educational environment I think we need a way to just reset things, which means that we need some measure of wiggle room and forgiveness in grades and deadlines, and that messes with the system of being forced (or forcing ourselves to do the work). In other words, if it is OK to have skipped an assignment or to turn it in late? And if it is, then you are no longer being forced to do an assignment in order to get a decent grade, and will people really do anything if they aren’t forced?

    And then we get to the whole issue of why we are doing all of the work! I tend to agree with Sue, that it’s hard to do work for an audience of one. It seems pointless, which makes it hard to pour your heart into it. And like Victor said, we seem to always make these assignments that don’t really ask students to do the things we most hope they will do.

  7. guevarayazmin says:

    Homework is good for many reasons. It keeps your mind thinking of what it has just learned. If it wasn’t for homework by the time I get to class next week I would forget everything that I had learned or talked about the week before. At least working on it from home even if it’s boring or if I get the problem wrong or right it keeps my mind fresh on the material learned. I am also guilty of thinking of the project as a whole instead of it in a small amount. Just thinking of everything that I have to get done by the end of the week makes me overwhelmed especially half way through the semester. I have fallen a bit of track recently and I gave myself a few days to regroup but now even if it’s 30 minutes a night I have to push myself to get something done and not think about it so much, just do it. I guess trying to find the balance back when you have fallen off balance is always hard but I just keep it telling myself halfway there.

  8. kjohns28 says:

    Interesting. I definitely get angry with myself when I put priority on the things I want to do or need to do over homework. For instance, work, conversations with family, more than four hours of sleep a night, exercise. These things become very easily justified, especially when I don’t want to do homework… However, I am also someone who enjoys academic work at times.

    I love what was said about “taking one step”. I think it’s very easily forgotten that it’s that simple to make a difference and improvement. 15 minutes of productivity can make a big difference when compared to zero minutes of productivity. I find that if I make homework a game, I’m more likely to jump on it. Like, if I write the outline for this paper- I can watch a show. When I finish the introduction- I can cook dinner, etc.

    • Angela Vierling-Claassen says:

      Yes! “15 minutes of productivity can make a big difference when compared to zero minutes of productivity.”

      I find that sometimes it is like pulling teeth to get those 15 minutes, though. Other days, I easily put in hours. Part of the difference is my overall stress level, I think.

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