Mailbag! (Doing Math in Your Head, Being Satisfied with Low Grades, and the Remarkable “Ghraph of Stupidity” )

Every so often, I comb through the Google search terms that have led people to my blog. Then I reply to them as if they were letters. It’s pretty fun. For me, anyway.

Q: ghraph of stupidity?

A: Happy to oblige! It looks something like this:

Q: why is doing math in your head bad?

A: First off, mental computation is a lovely skill. Sure, your calculator can compute 39 times 40 for you, but isn’t it nicer to sharpen your teeth by biting into such problems yourself? Mental math quickens the wits, builds number sense, and pleases the self-sufficient puzzle-solvers that live in our secret hearts.

What’s bad isn’t doing math in your head. It’s being unable or unwilling to do it on paper.

Paper remembers, even when you forget. To write out your work is to explain it, not just for teachers, but for the future you to inspect and revisit. Skills that feel automatic now may fade over weeks or months—so you’d best leave a record of what you did, and how.

Paper possesses superior short-term memory, too. Your skull can hold only so many elements in mind at once, but paper’s storage capacity is nearly infinite. When solving complex problems, paper isn’t just helpful—it’s essential for keeping ideas organized. And as you advance through school, problems rise in complexity and intricacy, like ascending levels of a video game, so even if you don’t need paper now, you will soon.

“But why use paper when I don’t need it yet?” you may ask, if you’re in the habit of talking aloud to blogs. “I’ll just start using it when it becomes necessary.” The sad truth is that you won’t. Paper is a tool, and it takes time and practice to master. I’ve seen too many students struggle simply because they started learning the proper use of pen and paper too late. Their work looked like a teenager’s bedroom: cluttered, disorganized, and missing sanitary necessities. If you wait until you need the paper, then you’ve waited too long.

Q: riddle: if all your children are girls youre probably a…

A: Parent! Nailed it.

Q: teachers just want a check.

A: Yes, please! Teachers are like anyone. We like money. We like praise. We like the feeling of a job well done, and we tried to pick a profession we’d find meaningful and rewarding. We prefer a happy workplace, kind coworkers, a capable principal, and warm muffins in the break room. Most of us are neither selfless martyrs nor civic leeches, but regular people, our work fueled by some mixture of money, duty, recognition, joy, and habit.

Q: how to get a friend to like math?

A: Congratulations—you’ve won the coveted “Most Adorable Search Query” award! Your endeavor is honorable and pure of heart.

You could try showing your friend the astoundingly cool Visualizing Math, compiled by a couple of high school students. Or share the magical videos of Vi Hart, and the hilarious rationality of Randall Munroe’s What If?. Try playing Ultimate Tic-Tac-Toe, or just working on homework together. As you know firsthand, kids are shaped and guided by their friendships. Just being a person who likes and cares about math is a way to support your friend.

Q: alltimut tik tack tow?

A: Wow. That is some impressive phonetic spelling, lil’ buddy.

Q: an a is great for certain kids, but some kids a c+ is amazing. how to we help our kids to not judge themselves compared to others?

A: The problem—to put it bluntly—is that an A is better than a C+.

When we tell kids to be satisfied with a C+, we risk telling them, “You’ll never be as successful as your high-scoring classmates. Just embrace your inferiority, child! Mediocrity can be fulfilling in its own feeble way.” No one wants to coast through life on low expectations.

Of course, the opposite approach doesn’t work, either. When a kid starts the year desperately behind, suffers a long run of abysmal test scores, and then finally manages a passing grade, you want to celebrate! You want the kid to feel like that hard work paid off. To suggest otherwise can be devastating—no one wants to be held to expectations beyond their reach.

The solution, as often, is to focus on growth. Education is a journey; we never end in quite the same place we began. It’s true that C+’s are never as good as A+’s, but even objectively “low” scores can signal marvelous improvement. For such students, what we ought to honor and commend is not the grades, but the growth. Celebrate the progress, and urge those kids to keep climbing.

Q: life like drawings of bears?

A: Oh, dear. You’ve come to the wrong place.

Postscript: My apologies to the bad spellers of the world. Many of my favorite smart people (such as my wife) are terrible spellers. You know what they say: A misspelling is just a beautiful birthmark on the face of language. (I mean, they don’t really say that, but they should totally start.)

19 thoughts on “Mailbag! (Doing Math in Your Head, Being Satisfied with Low Grades, and the Remarkable “Ghraph of Stupidity” )

    1. Definitely! I’ve actually gotten some good emails that I’ve been meaning to work into one of these… but emails are generally much more thoughtful than search queries, and take a little more time to respond adequately to.

  1. People often find my website by typing in actuarial exam questions, word for word, from past released exams. I guess that they figure that someone will have secret easy answers on the internet.
    If you began to routinely answer your search engine queries, you could become google junior. Or baddrawingsipedia. Or benaboutdotcom.

    1. I’d settle for “The Alta Vista of the 21st Century.”

      Only recently did I find out how rough that barrage of actuarial exams is. My friend said he’s getting 120 paid hours off from work in order to study, just for exam #5 or 6 out of something like 12.

      1. 120 hours is just getting warmed up. These exams are trully humbling. Yet irresistable, at the same time. 🙂

    2. At first I thought you meant “actual exam questions”, but then I Googled your name and found your blog.

  2. Sometimes I visit your website to see if there is a new post, and if there is, and as hard as it may be, I will not read the post right away. I like to let the math with bad drawings posts compile (3 is the most) and then just gorge myself on a random day. That’s my way of saying I love this blog! Thanks!

  3. Thanks for reading, Veronika and Susan!

    By the way, Susan, I try to post on Mondays and Wednesdays around 11am-12pm EST. Not sure if that’s helpful for your build-’em-up-and-then-gorge scheme, but just in case!

  4. Q: riddle: if all your children are girls youre probably a…

    A: Parent! Nailed it.

    Not necessarily, for if you have no children, this is vacuously true as all zero of your children are girls 🙂

    1. Ouch. Bummer.

      Well, it does say “probably,” rather than “certainly.” So depending on the likelihood of childlessness in the population, you could still “probably” be a parent.

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