Adding It Up
I don’t know much about the education system besides the fact that it’s fucked. I know that most teachers are out there trying their hardest, a small minority aren’t trying at all, and every last one of them are stuck in a system which is fundamentally, profoundly fucked.
All children learn somewhat differently, and all children have different ideas, interests, feelings, and experiences, and the education system as it stands now depends on all children being treated as if they were exactly the same.
It also values linguistic and mathematical intelligence above everything else, and Christ, don’t get me started on that, because that’s not what I want to talk about.
I want to talk about math, and specifically how spectacularly bad I am at it.
They’ve done tests.
The results of these tests pretty much were, “Whoo boy, who dropped you when you were small, and how many flights of stairs did you fall down?”
I can’t do math.
If somebody asked me what 3 x 6 is, I wouldn’t know. If you told me to calculate 2 + 7 in my head, I couldn’t.
This obviously posed a problem in math class when I was growing up. I wasn’t a behavioural problem, I made an effort, I was smart in other areas, so the teachers gave me the benefit of the doubt and were really very nice to me.
They gave me extra assistance and sometimes gave me assignments that were several grade levels below me, and in the last two years of elementary school my math marks weren’t even included in my report card.
My teachers did everything they could, given their limited resources. But they had dozens of other students to worry about, and only so much time in the day, and a curriculum to follow. So I never learned math, and me and my teachers all accepted this.
Except here’s the thing.
I know off the top of my head that Christopher Plummer was born in 1929, and that he turns 86 this year.
I know that George Harrison was 58 when he died in 2001, because he was born in 1943.
I know that Hitler was 44-years-old when he became Chancellor of Germany in 1933.
How the fuck do I know any of this? I have no idea. Nobody does. Somehow when numbers become interesting to me and applicable in a concrete fashion, I gain the ability to learn them. I can do this, but have no idea how much change to give the cashier when I buy milk. I have an enormous goddamn pile of change in my bedroom drawer, because every time I buy things I use the largest bill I have on me.
So what could have been done differently to teach me math when I was a kid? What could the teachers have done? I’ve thought about this quite a bit, and I don’t have any definite answers because I’m not an educator or psychologist. There are all kinds of theories and strategies I’ve never been exposed to.
However, I think that play is tremendously important. A lot of the time when we’re teaching kids we sit them down with repetitive exercises to complete, like a list of sums to add up, or sentences to copy down, and I feel like this is the wrong approach.
I started calculating dates in my head when I started goofing around with Cinemania ’95, which was a CD-ROM encyclopedia about movies. It wasn’t long before I became curious about how old Birth of a Nation was (at the time, approximately eighty-years-old) or how old Humphrey Bogart was when he died (fifty-eight). At first I figured this stuff out using a calculator, but eventually I was able to add up dates without its help. Still, I liked fiddling around with calculators, punching in numbers absent-mindedly and seeing what came up. I have a calculator next to me as I write this; it’s a permanent mainstay on my writing desk. Even though I never have any real reason to do math, I feel a little lost without it.
Another thing I like to do, which I only started when I got older, is create fictional cities and countries. The information about these fictional entities are usually restricted to a list of mayors or presidents, along with party affiliation and a few minor details that require math to work out. I know now, off the top of my head, if someone was elected to an eight-year-term in office in 1825, they left office in 1833.
Not every kid is interested in math or English or science, so you have to use something else to get through to them. What do they like? What are they good at? What do they consider fun? How can you use that to teach them?
Better yet, how can they use that to teach themselves? I’ve always taught myself better than other people teach me. I taught myself how to read when I was two-and-a-half. But there have always been other people around to give me additional necessary information. My parents read to me, and if I asked what signs said, they told me. If I was reading a book of political cartoons from the ‘70s and wondered who Bob Stanfield was, I could ask my father. Reading Roger Ebert’s reviews taught me how to watch movies.
I’m not sure how to apply these ideas to a classroom setting. Figuring out how to personalize information for twenty kids probably isn’t possible. The system’s fucked.
But the best teachers try anyway. If you’re a teacher and aren’t possessed by a single-minded, manic idealism, you should get out of the business. In this world, in this education system, teaching students means accomplishing dozens of impossible things every day.
Think about it. If I was in your class, along with eighteen others who needed you as much as me, what would you have done? How would you have pulled it off?