Once, There Weren’t Numbers

a fable about the origins of those helpful counting thingies

Once there weren’t numbers,
and life was cold and sad.
You might say “I’ve got lots of stuff!”
but not how much you had.

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You could gather flowers,
but you couldn’t count them up.
You could ask for chocolate milk,
but not a “second” cup.
And though their eyes could see just fine,
the people still were blind.
They held things in their arms and hands,
but never in their minds.

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Wrong But Not Stupid

or, How to Call Out Mistakes without Trampling the Mistaken

It was the end of our first day on limits—a deep and slippery concept, the engine of calculus—when Melanie exclaimed, “Wait. Shouldn’t that limit be 4, not 6?”

Nope—it was 6. Melanie’s error suggested that she’d missed the lesson’s most basic truth, an idea that the class had spent the day paraphrasing, analyzing, and shouting in chorus. Talking one-on-one, I could have coached her through the misconception. But hers was a public declaration, in front of the whole room.

Even before the words had left Melanie’s mouth, I could hear the groan welling up among the students, murmured ridicule and the slapping of foreheads soon to follow. They all knew it. She didn’t. From Melanie’s blushing, you could read her self-esteem falling like a mercury thermometer.

And so I found myself confronting one of the teacher’s daily puzzles: what do you say when a student is wrong?

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The Hard-to-Tell Story of the High School Classroom

Now and then, an article lands in my inbox, promising that some technology will remake the classroom. Our schools, apparently, are as outdated as car-phones or medical leeches. It’s time to welcome the flipped classroom, the MOOC, the data-driven world.

It’s not all wrong, I’m sure. But it makes me wonder: How well do we actually know the classroom? Before we start drastic renovations, we should make sure we’ve got a clear view of the structure that’s already in place. And I’m not sure we do.

The story of the classroom is devilishly hard to tell.

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The Lesson I Learned from Hating on the SAT’s Guessing Policy

Man—I had a whole, scathing essay written and ready to go.

The title: The SAT Changed Their Guessing Policy to Appear Fairer, But It’s Actually Less Fair. “With the ACT pulling ahead in the admissions test Cola Wars,” I wrote, “I struggle to greet the SAT’s announced changes with anything but cynicism.”

I was halfway into the boxing ring when I realized I was on the wrong side of the fight.

This little fable is about the SAT’s “guessing penalty,” and while it’s a tale full of technicalities, I promise it’ll end with a moral. A moral so obvious, it’s surprising.

Or perhaps vice versa: so surprising, it’s obvious. Continue reading

Elegant, Simple, Coherent, and… Oh Yeah, Totally Wrong

In a Labor Economics class, I had a great TA named Peter. He taught me a deep truth about labor markets: namely, that TAs sometimes teach better than professors.

If people looked like bad drawings, he’d look like this:

He also taught me one of the most enduring lessons I’ve learned about economics, modeling, and the limits of theory to explain the social world.

But the lesson wasn’t about those things. Not explicitly. It was about the minimum wage. Continue reading

“Dead Poets Society” for Skeptics (or, How to Inspire Your Way into a Godawful Mess)

“This is a battle, a war, and the casualties could be your hearts and souls.”
–Mr. Keating

Last Friday, after a long day walking around London, we ordered curries and sought a little cinematic comfort food. We settled eventually on the quintessential Inspirational Teacher film: Dead Poets Society.

I remembered the movie as fun but philosophically naïve. As guiding principles go, “carpe diem” seems to have all the intellectual heft of a Dos Equis commercial. I mean, I’d love to seize every moment, but when am I supposed to fit in laundry, groceries, and thank-you notes?

As a teacher, I’ve found my work nourishing, and occasionally magical, but never terribly heroic. It’s a quiet, daily grind. So where does Hollywood conjure up these human motivational posters? Isn’t the inspirational teacher just soothing movie gibberish, like talking animal sidekicks, or One True Love? Continue reading

The Voldemort of Calculus Classes

This year, I encountered the world’s worst calculus class, a mutant-frog specimen of undergraduate mathematics: UC Berkeley’s Math 16B. It’s an exercise in cynicism; a master-class in spite; a sordid and cautionary tale of everything that can go wrong in curriculum design.

16B is my blood-born nemesis. Neither can live while the other survives. Continue reading