K-12 education

Whiplash and Thoughts on Achievement

I saw “Whiplash“. It’s awesome. This is what its IMDB blurb says:

A promising young drummer enrolls at a cutthroat music conservatory where his dreams of greatness are mentored by an instructor who will stop at nothing to realize a student’s potential.

This movie got me thinking, again, about talent vs hard work, external pressure vs internal drive.

Eldest has been swimming and enjoying the team experience. He’s getting better, but he’s not very fast, and his technique needs considerable work (all the swim lessons he had as a kid are worth next to squat, it seems). But he’s been enjoying it and the team is very supportive.

When I watch him, my inner ultracompetitive workaholic  monster scientist wakes up. I look at him and at the other swimmers, and I scrutinize what he’s done or not done. I look at the mechanics of their strokes, when they turn, how long they glide before resuming with strokes. There are kids with beautiful technique, lots of experience, and presumably natural ability. There are other kids who may not swim much, but are into other sports and are generally athletic, and that control over the body appears to translate between sports (a number of winter swimmers also run track in the fall). Moreover, it seems like other kids with comparable swim experience to Eldest’s are better in part because they are very focused and because they are pushing themselves as far as they will go. My kid seems distracted at the start, and often seems as if he’s almost swimming leisurely. But perhaps I am being unfair and he’s doing all he can. It’s tough being the son of a pain-in-the-butt mom. I didn’t think I would be that mom. But I was always very competitive myself and I don’t like how much this swimming business upsets me.

Eldest doesn’t particularly care for my insights. I am no coach, and he tells me as much, but even I can tell that there are issues with his dive and his turns, plus his arms are not as straight as those of the fastest kids. But, there are many swimmers on the team and the season is too short for him to receive individualized attention. Or maybe they are selective about who receives their attention.

Anyway, I am focusing on keeping my mouth shut and letting Eldest do his thing. But boy, do I wish he had more of a competitive, go-getter streak. Not just in swimming, but anything really. I need to curb my extreme A-type-ness in order not to smother and alienate Eldest, who appears more laid back. I am aware of this difference between us, and I work on keeping my mouth shut. The problem is that there is always this tiny voice that wonders what if we’d just nudged him more earlier, maybe he’d be better at some things and maybe even grateful down the line… I told you, it’s not easy being the kid of an A-type mom. (Now imagine if I didn’t have my own demanding career and was thus free to pour all of my ambitions into my kids… Now that’s a truly scary thought.)

Back to “Whiplash”. The music school teacher is abusive in every sense — physically, verbally, emotionally. He’s a manipulative jerk. But, apparently, he believes that’s the way to entice greatness, by building up and breaking down those with potential, as he feels those with true greatness would not be deterred by abuse and would instead only work harder and harder in the face of adversity. I don’t know about that; in the process of uncovering a rare gem via great abuse, many will completely wash out and possibly kill themselves.

We see the lead character, a 19-year-old drummer, work obsessively and push himself to the limits (Bandaids are apparently a key part of equipment for drummers). That’s inner drive. What I still don’t know is whether or not it is possible to ignite that spark in someone who doesn’t already possess it. Sure, you can push and pressure kids while they are little, but at some point they will rebel unless what they are pushed to do is what they actually want to to do.

My DH and I don’t push our kids very much, and I wonder if we are mistaken. We are lazy  parents and let them chill. But at some point achievements start to count and you see that your kid might be behind because you didn’t know you were supposed to start pushing them much earlier. And does it make sense to insist if a kid doesn’t have talent? And who decides who has talent? I can judge talent for math and science and perhaps to a small degree art, but not much else. We all know “10% inspiration, 90% perspiration”, but what if the inspiration or natural ability are just not there?

Sort of like in this great old comic by SMBC:

That guy has 17 special talents. This other guy, not a single one.

Most people are unremarkable. Some, perhaps many, are marginally remarkable, at the level of high school or college or some professional community. None would be the wiser if most of us hadn’t been born at all. When you think about it, it’s quite depressing.

Sometimes I think the best thing I can do for my kids is to leave them alone to relax and enjoy their childhood with minimal stress and structure. Then they want to swim in high school and we see we are years behind the ideal time when one should have started with these activities, but we didn’t because my kid would not hear of competing during the many years I asked, then when he got around to wanting to compete, he turned out he was not the fastest guy around. What I need is a time machine to bring his current self to talk to his 5th or 6th grade self and make himself start to swim seriously. Also, I need a crystal ball to see when I will need the same type of intervention with the younger two kids and for which sport.

One thing that the teacher in “Whiplash” said was that “Good job” were the worst two words in the English language, because they encourage passivity. I tend to agree that they are overused, and that there is great focus on just showing up and putting in half-assed effort. Effort is a necessary but not sufficient condition for achievement.

I have a collaborator who dishes continuous praise to graduate students, for even the most idiotic of achievements (“You printed these 3 figures so you’d show them to us? Good job!”) There is no need to be abusive, but I don’t praise my graduate students until they have actually done something worth praising, something that took both effort and skill. Usually, when the materials are starting to come together for our first joint paper is when a student might expect to hear “Well done!” I might also praise for unusually good performance, when someone does someone much faster than expected, or shows uncommon creativity, originality, or initiative. So no, I am not an over-praiser because that cheapens true achievement, but I am not a praise-miser either.

Also, never outside of the US have I heard kids say so often and with such conviction “I am not good at x,” where x is something that they tried once or not at all. With my own kids, it gets on my nerves a lot that there are so many things they give up on before even seriously trying, and I don’t know how to fix that. I keep talking to them, that they just have to keep trying and they will keep getting better. It often falls on deaf ears.

But, on the other hand, many undergraduate students (and my own Eldest on occasion) have this idea that putting in great but perhaps misplaced effort is somehow supposed to be valued the same as achievement. Sometimes I get this as part of teaching evaluation, that I assign a lot of work and that the grade doesn’t reflect the amount of effort the student put in. The grade reflects what you have shown in terms of mastery. If you are between grades, sure, it may tip you over towards the higher one if you are a really hard worker, but hard work alone is not enough. You have to also work smart. If you don’t know how, you have to know to ask for help, as much help as needed until you crack the code of what the best way to apply effort is. That’s why people have coaches and advisors and supervisors…

I find that in trying to understand my kids I have serious limitations by simply being myself. I want to support their efforts and encourage them when they waver. But there is support and encouragement, and then there’s unwelcome pressure. The problem is that they can seem very alike.

Then there is just letting kids be. I grew up like that and it turned out I was plenty driven, but how to best parent the kids who may not be? What happens with the kids who are not driven themselves and who are also not pushed externally? Does everyone eventually find something they are passionate about? The world doesn’t wait for the indecisive to decide, and before you know it, it’s college admission time.

How do you determine that an effort is worth pursuing? That it’s something where you have the potential to be excellent, rather than barely above average with tremendous sweat? How do you decide you truly have no real ability versus that you would really get good with more effort? Where is the line between encouraging and badgering?

At my advanced age, I have found that I am doing better work than ever and am being more creative. Part is that I am finally believing that I am allowed to be here and do the things I do. I actually know that I can do this job and now I can, more often than not, actually summon this intellectual awareness to combat bouts of impostor syndrome. I have sufficient track record, so I finally have some confidence. I still think I am not at the tippity top, but with increased confidence the quality of the papers I publish has been steadily increasing and I am finally getting to the point of being bold and brave with my submissions, as opposed to conservative.  I have done a lot of work to earn my confidence. I envy those who were confident to begin with. Maybe that’s what having real talent means, never doubting that you will be successful (although considering how prevalent it is in dudes of certain demographics as opposed to others, I would say good old patriarchy has its hands in it, as well). I know the insecurity has been a driver for me, to get better and achieve. But now success is a different kind of driver, in that my appetites have increased. I think a good combo of external discouragement (leading to stubbornness, keeping at it and improving) and encouragement (leading to boldness and increasing ambition) may be the right thing leading to increasing performance. You need to grow your dreams, but you also have to grow the skills to match the ambition.

Down the Memory Lane: Math in K-12 Science Classes

Zinemin has a great post on understanding physics (and math) in high school.

I started writing a comment, then it got so long-winded that I decided (for once) to not hog other people’s comment threads with my verbosity, but to put it all in a post. Here’s what the comment would have been (Zinemin is a physicist, so some of the verbiage is more physicist-friendly than entirely general).


I grew up and went to grade school and college in Europe, so my experience as a student is quite different from what I see that my kids and students experiencing.

I think I started falling in love with math sometime in primary school (we had grades 1-8 as primary school, then grades 9-12 as secondary/high school). I had a wonderful math teacher in grades 5-8 and I think that made a ton of difference. (By the way, all teaches in grades 1-4 were what would here be education majors, but to teach grades 5 and onward the teachers had to have a bachelor’s degree in the subject they were teaching.) My primary school math teacher made everything clear and I remember looking forward to practicing at home from the books of problems (we didn’t have homework in most subjects past grade 5, just collections of problems from which to work at home); I remember doing problems in algebra and proving congruence of triangles. I think this confidence that I gained in grades 5-8 never left me when it comes to math.

I started having physics as a separate subject in 6th grade. I remember one of the most appealing aspects was the fact that I got to use my beloved algebra; we did the basic mechanics stuff — motion with constant velocity or constant acceleration; ballistic motion. We must have done the concepts of force and energy, because  I remember making my dad teach me some basic trigonometry during the summer after grade 6th because I wanted to do inclined-plane problems. The physics lab was beautiful, I still remember these posters with the basic SI units, derived SI units, common prefixes. The physics teacher was excellent.

In high school I had a great math teacher throughout, and a great physics teacher in grades 11 and 12. My physics teacher in grades 9 and 10 sucked, when we covered thermodynamics and much of electromagnetism, and I still feel like I don’t know them very well. This is of course ridiculous, since thereafter I won awards in all sorts of physics competitions, I went on  to major in theoretical physics and get a PhD in a related discipline. Still, there is a faint visceral insecurity about those particular classical physics topics stemming from this wobbly initial exposure, even though I use thermodynamics and electrodynamics all the time in research and teaching.

I started loving chemistry in high school, because I had several excellent teachers who showed us what the underlying laws were and why. I even went to chemistry high school competitions (I could titer with the best of them).  During high school, I developed a deep distaste for biology because all that my two high school biology teachers ever made me do is cram and regurgitate their lectures back to them; I still occasionally have nightmares about answering questions about the nervous systems of nematodes. I never particularly cared about the nature/outdoors (the kid of the concrete jungle and all that), so all the botany stuff was lost on me. I really enjoyed what falls under basic cell biology (e.g. what different organelle do, the role of RNA). At one point, in perhaps sophomore year, we were learning about neural synapses, and based on what she taught, it seemed to me like I could think of synapses as little capacitors that can get charged of discharged; I don’t remember the details other than that I came up with this simple circuit-level model of how information travels through a network of neurons based on how I understood what she had taught and based on what I knew of electrical circuits; the teacher was very rude and dismissive, she said something about not being interested in my silly ideas and to take the stuff to the physics teacher, and that she wanted me to learn the material exactly as she had lectured. So yeah. I don’t like biology because my fee-fees were hurt. Even though intellectually I recognize the importance and difficulty of problems in biomedical sciences, something deep inside me cringes and shrivels whenever someone proposes a collaborative project that veers anywhere towards bio.

These early exposures seem to have a pronounced effect on how much confidence we gain, and confidence appears critical for later achievement. But I digress…

My Eldest is like an education experiment for me and my husband, because the system is very different from what we are used to and we have no idea what comes next. Where I went to school, the system was challenging and very good for smart kids, while average and below-average kids were left to just get bad grades or flunk and generally never do well. The US does a much better job catering to the average future citizen, presumably because the above-average ones are expected to find a way to excel anyway; they sometimes do, but they rarely do if they are poor.  (nicoleandmaggie write a lot about challenges in getting access to education for gifted kids).

In connection with Zinemin’s post, I am witnessing my Eldest in the US pre-college education system and it is appalling how little connection is made between math and any of the sciences. Eldest is a freshman in high school, and they have integrated science (won’t have physics separately till junior or senior year, and even so only as an elective). This year, so far he’s had a unit of physics here and there, but they do not use math at all. You should have seen how they covered light that we observe from different stars, and inferences about star temperature or distance from color and brightness; it made my skin crawl. The math needed for the Stefan-Boltzmann law or Wien’s displacement law is really not that hard, a high school student could understand the power emitted per unit area of what’s essentially a generalization of the heater on the stove goes as temperature to the fourth, or why the intensity decreases as inverse distance squared from a source (such as a lightbulb; or a star). But it was all very qualitative, completely hand-wavy, with vague concepts such as perceived brightness and actual brightness (no definition of either and no textbook; based on the problems assigned, I managed to decipher the two to be, respectively, the intensity of light here on Earth (power per unit area) and total power emitted from the entire surface of the star; the fact that one is called perceived brightness and one actual brightness and they don’t even have the same units makes me want to break something. Once I deciphered what was meant, I was able to help my son with the work, but you should have seen his resistance. He is very good at math and can definitely do the manipulations needed for the calculations (it was a problem with three stars and their perceived/actual brightnesses and sizes and distances from Earth, so very simple algebra was all that was needed). Eldest just didn’t understand why I would want to inflict this math on him when the science teacher didn’t do it, it wasn’t necessary, and everything could just be handwaved. This is the only physics unit I saw him have this year; he might have had more, he just didn’t need help (he has excellent grades overall). But from what he mentioned  in passing, most of the integrated science focuses on biology, a little chemistry, some geology and some astronomy, but nothing with even with a little math.

When I try to show my kid what I do for research, he zones out within 20 seconds because it is boring, and cannot understand why I would want to work on the stuff I work on because boooooring. This attitude appears common and continues into college. My undergraduate students still seem to think that they can be taught things in our physical science discipline without using math, as if math were some cruel curiosity that has no real use or connection to the concepts. It pains me when I hear this. Math is the language of nature and the fact that we can speak it is nothing short of miraculous.

Wrong, Wronger, Wrongest (Adventures in Grading)

In science, a potential answer to a problem is either right or wrong. But when it comes to teaching and learning, and especially grading student exams, there is wrong and then there is WROOONG.

Here’s an example. Let’s say you need to compute a certain distance that has to do with the behavior of electrons in a nanostructure.

Correct answer: 160 nm

Incorrect answers:

Wrong: 300 nm (wrong, but within the order of magnitude)

More wrong: 1.6 μm  or 1.6 nm (wrong order of magnitude, but still meaningful, within the scales of nanostructures)

Nonsensically wrong: 1.6 m (height of an adult woman) or 1.6 fm (size of an atomic nucleus; fm=10^(-15) m). While it may seem that mistaking the 160-nm length for a macroscopic height of a woman is more silly and thus more wrong than the nuclear size, the latter is actually “wronger” because it is 8 orders of magnitude off (versus 7 orders of magnitude for the former).

Two things that we don’t teach our students enough, that we perhaps don’t insist enough on, are minding units and building intuition about orders of magnitude. They are amazing, priceless tools for sanity checking.

Xykademiqz Drowns in Swimming

A few weeks ago I posted on my disorienting foray into the Twilight Zone world of high-school athletics at Eldest’s new school.

It’s all very macho. The swim team recently went on a dads-and-boys daylong canoeing trip; some dads went, but DH didn’t go. (By the way, it’s not even clear that the kid will make the team as they haven’t had the tryouts yet, but everyone who showed interest was supposed to partake in these bonding experiences.) There was canoeing and apparently eating tons of burgers/hot dogs, with a side of hazing of the freshmen. Nothing  too nefarious: older boys stole the freshmen’s canoes, tipped them out into the water, later filled canoes with sand or water or mud or something, but I found my gut tighten as I was listening to my kid tell me about the day. Apparently, this is all common manly bonding Scheisse, and if movies are anything like the real stuff, fraternity hazing is infinitely worse. Being the gentle, kind-hearted mom that I am, I found myself wanting to punch someone’s lights out. I think I am way too high-strung, protective, and just socially anxious to survive my kids going to high school. And I really hope none of my kids attempt to join any fraternities.

But the boys’ high school swim season doesn’t start until the winter. In the meantime, Eldest has been swimming at a local club.

Freakin’ swimming has taken over my family’s life.

During the first week of September, they still wanted to swim outside, starting at 4:15 daily. So DH or I had to leave work early, pick up Eldest after school at 3:40ish then drive him to the pool, then organize the pickup of other two and go get him again two hours later. There are older boys who drive, but for younger boys apparently there will always be a parent available to chauffeur — because we’re in the 1950’s and women don’t work.

After the first two weeks things got better. They swim in a different pool every day, but at least it’s in the evening.

Here’s the kicker: at every home meet, parent volunteering is mandatory. That’s alright, take all the time you need to let the giant italicized oxymoron sink in.

I don’t want to volunteer. I work all the time and the weekends are the only time I get to spend with my kids, my husband, my vacuum cleaner, and my washer and dryer. That’s when I do grocery shopping and cooking for much of the week. Our weekends are the time to do chores and relax a little so we’d have the energy for the week.

I know there are people (unfortunately, mostly women) who don’t work or who work part time, and who are able and willing to volunteer at these events. I am not one of them and I detest the fact that so much depends on women’s unpaid work. And I hate it even more that I am expected to put in such unpaid work myself.

I am already paying good money so my kid would swim. I am paying extra for the equipment, team apparel and each meet. I will pay more if they need me to, but I DO. NOT. WANT. TO VOLUNTEER because what I do NOT have is time.

I played a team sport in middle and high school, I don’t think my mom ever came to see me play and dad came occasionally. That suited me just fine because it was MY activity, not theirs. I don’t understand this need for incessant involvement in everything kids do. Mandating parental involvement is just maddening. So I asked if I can buy my way out of volunteering; if not, I guess we won’t be signing the kid up for home meets, or may have to switch clubs.

Editorial and Professorial Nuggets

—  I am an associate editor of a specialized disciplinary journal. I try my best to include junior researchers (postdocs, young profs or nonacademic scientists, even some senior graduate students) as reviewers when I know they do good work based on what I have heard or seen them present at conferences. It turns out, a surprisingly high number of people cannot write a review to save their life. Some of them are junior, so they have the excuse of inexperience, but some should really know better.

I get these cryptic two-line reports with a recommendation to reject. WTF? That is not a report. I cannot send that on to authors, it gives me a basis for nothing. Especially if you are going to reject, you better give clear reasons for doing so.  Even if the paper is crap, it usually (although not always) presents a considerable amount of work by the authors. If the paper sucks, tell them precisely why it sucks and how much it sucks, so they would know whether to try and fix it or that there is no hope and they should drop it.

How does one learn to write referee reports? Well, when it comes to my students, I send them samples of my reports to look at (ranging from minor revisions to rejections). But, one first and foremost learns from the reports received of one’s own papers. Which is why I wonder, especially for senior folks, how unobservant and unable to generalize they are,  that they cannot figure out what is to be done based on their own experiences with being on the receiving end of reports.  These are all skills necessary for doing science, how is it possible not to apply them when learning how to write reports?

— There are career editors and then there are editors who are practicing scientists. Either way, the longest part of the review-and-publication process should be the actual peer review. It should not be the time taken by the editorial office staff to check the formatting; it should similarly not be the time the editor takes to make a decision and transmit the referee comments to the authors after the peer review has been completed. I have found myself dreading submission to certain journals, because I know a paper in a certain field will go to a certain editor, and the editor has a habit of just sitting on the paper for days or weeks on end, both when it comes to making referrals and when it comes to making a decision (the time they take doesn’t seem to correlate at all with how hand-wringing the decision-making process might be; hearing about “major revisions” appears to take just as much time as receiving “publish as is”.

For editors who are practicing scientists, why do people take on this role if they are not committed to doing a good job? I know, becoming an editor in a good journal is an honor, but it’s also a job, and an important one. And part of doing it well also means doing it fast. I know some great associate editors who handle dozens of new papers per week very efficiently. But then there are others. And I wish someone gave them a kick in the pants so they’d finally get going.

Yes, I am very impatient. But you can bet that I am very efficient as associate editor.

— In professorial news, once again, the biggest problem of my undergrads is that they don’t know the math that they should know. They don’t have the facility with basic calculus, let alone analytic geometry. While some fairly complicated concepts can be hand-waved down to the levels of calculus or geometry, it’s of little use because these concepts, which should have been internalized long ago, appear only vaguely familiar to students as opposed to being tools wielded with confidence. Part of it, at my university, is the ever-shrinking list of required math courses so students could all get as many free electives as possible (?!); that’s because students feeling warm and fuzzy upon having customized their studies to the point of senselessness  beats actually getting a solid education in the major. The worst thing is the students’ attitude that this insistence on calculating stuff, on — gasp! — using math, is somehow unnecessary and is in the way of actual real knowledge. They want to make it go away and get to the good stuff. They cannot. I am all for pictures and analogies and building one’s intuition. I draw in class more than I write equations. But this is fairly high-level stuff, and the intuition has to be already honed by both math and experience with other similar problems. Students cannot expect everything worth knowing as a senior in a physical science discipline to just be qualitative or requiring no more than arithmetic and high-school algebra. I am really tired of having to apologize for what is really not particularly high-level math that they should be proficient in anyway.

Xykademiqz Goes to Athletic Department Kick-Off

My eldest is starting high school in the fall and I can already tell it will be tough. Not for him — for me.

A stereotypical high school athlete is very competitive and usually participates in more than one sport. Eldest has some very stereotypically athletic friends, but is not one himself. However, he has swum for many years and all his strokes are very good. But, he does not like to compete and he had never wanted to partake in swim meets before. But now he wants to get on the swim team, so we went to the athletic department kick-off.

Oh. My. God. A new and terrifying world opened up, one that made me feel like I should go back into my cave and never get out.

We first gathered on the football stadium [not to be confused with the baseball field (ballpark, is it?) or the field where the track and field folks practice] to be introduced to So. Many. Coaches… For so many sports! It’s a huge athletic department, near as I can say, but what do I know; maybe it’s really a teeny-tiny smaller-than-average barely-worth-mentioning department. Then we were promptly informed that they are — clap if you saw this one coming —  underfunded!!! And we need to raise… $100k. (Am I the only one who thinks this number is just outrageous?) Which is going to be done by making every athlete peddle coupons.

Now, I hate hate HATE it how seemingly everything in the US has to be funded by people walking door to door, asking for money. And now you can’t be on a team without shaking your neighbors for some dough or, as I am sure many end up doing, just giving the money yourself (it’s a lot, each kid is supposed to bring in $300). But-but-but… It’s a team effort! We are looking for the best team! Best at forcing useless coupons on the people we know! Whichever team collects the most gets some sort of “prize”! At a banquet which I am sure will be paid from these funds!!!

Then we go inside the school and go to different classrooms, according to sport.

I have to say here that the interactions with the locals en masse, such as when going to my kids’ school-mandated orientation or celebration events, make me acutely, profoundly anxious. In part, I am sure it’s because I never went through the school system here, so every aspect is new, different, and disorienting. I am supposed to be a grownup, yet I feel like I am a really really dumb fish out of water. I think I should just send my husband to these events instead, because I get so very uncomfortable, but I don’t want to transfer my anxiety to my kid, who is blissfully oblivious and generally unruffled.

Also, I am white, but, as I keep finding over and over and over again, I am not  really white, as in the right kind of American-born-and-bred white. But I certainly look as white as they come, so I keep getting approached by local moms, who start chatting with me, quickly get disappointed when they hear I have an accent (alternative theory is that I bore them to death in 10 seconds, which, if true, would be a superpower of sorts), decide I am not really worth their time and immediately start looking around for someone else to talk to. And this happens several times on every such occasion. I should just frown more, so people would avoid me.

You know how I feel the impostor syndrome at work, as a woman in a male-dominated discipline? I assure you that’s nothing compared to the feeling of not belonging that makes me want to flee whenever I have to interact with other parents at my kids’ schools.  (Or with teachers! Teachers scare me and I always feel like a child who’s in trouble.) I have no idea how it must be for other international folks; I know there are many immigrant families from South and East Asia in the neighborhood, very few at the athletic department kickoff, though. I wonder what percentage of immigrant families send their kids to high-school sports. Maybe they are all terrified shitless like me.

So we get to the classroom for boys’ swimming. It doesn’t start till the spring, and the coach gives us the dates (and the stupid coupons), talks a little more, then asks for questions, and I stupidly ask if there is going to be any practice in the fall, which was a really really really bad idea and a really really stupid question.  I need to keep my mouth shut, always. Apparently, my kid is supposed to already be swimming and competing with a club and, since he doesn’t, and they asked us where he swam and used to swim, my question and their follow-up ones embarrassed him in front of everyone. We were told to go join a competitive swim club in the fall; of course, now he has to try for that one, too.

One mom who was late to this revelation came to me and introduced herself as the mom of the team captain, and asked me what meets my kid  had competed in. When I said he didn’t but that he was good, she gave me a nice condescending smile.

As I know now but didn’t then, the swim team is very good and very intense and very competitive; in season, they do 8 practices per week. Apparently everyone knows that and us coming all uninformed was really silly. I am a little worried about the intensity of the team and how it’s going to sit with my laid-back kid, but I am perhaps even more alarmed at how much all the parents seem to be really invested in all this.

That’s another aspect of the US education that I cannot come to terms with — how much parental involvement (time and money and chauffeuring) is expected. And how intense the parents get about all the activities that their kids do.

I don’t understand the reasoning: most of  these kids will not be doing whatever they are doing sportswise past high school. A handful might do it in college, a very rare one might turn pro; among the rest, a minority will continue to do it casually. But it still holds that most kids’ abilities don’t warrant that much fuss about their competitive athletic pursuits. These are all s0lidly middle-class families, the kids will go to college, why not spend more energy and money on academics or languages or something that they can actually benefit from past the age of 18? How about enable more kids to participate in sports for fun instead? I tried to get a way for my eldest to swim noncompetitively and it’s impossible: you can go swim laps at the YMCA once you turn 18, but as a teen you either compete as part of a club or nothing.

What is it with sports in the US, honestly? Sure, sports attract audiences, money, endorsements etc., but the scale of production at the freakin’ high-school level?

I remain shaken by the glimpse into the world of high-school athletics.


I talked with a senior colleague a couple of weeks ago and he mentioned that grade distributions have become increasingly bimodal. There are kids who have high scores and kids with very low scores, and very few students in between. The colleague said it didn’t use to be like that, that the students 20-30 years ago used to simply be better on average, and grade distributions used to be the beloved normal (Gaussian) distributions.

I don’t know how students used to be, but I can attest that the bimodal distribution is the norm rather than the exception in many of my courses. There are students who are obviously getting the material and who could probably take on even more challenge. And there are the kids who are so far behind and who have so many deficiencies from lower-level courses that it’s unclear what it is that they are actually getting from the class, if anything.

The problem with this profile is that you don’t know whom to aim your lectures at. My best-ever teacher in grad school said “20% of the students will do great no matter how poorly you teach, 20% will do poorly no matter how well you teach, but there are 60% of students where how you teach really affects what they learn and how well they do; you want to tailor your lectures towards the 60%.” The thing I see is that there are 40% who are doing well and 40% who are doing really poorly, and 20% who are doing so-so. The people who are consistently doing really poorly likely shouldn’t even be in this major, but I am not sure what to do about it. On account of them, I can’t do what I could do in class with the students who are doing really well. Rather than a near-continuum of abilities, we have a pretty big chasm, such that most of the class is either really bored or really lost. It seems that there are very few people near the average, for whom the middle-centric teaching approach of my former teacher would work.

What I do is try to assign extra homework with some brain teasers for additional credit, and I already give 2-3 extra problems per exam that require a little non-trivial thinking. But the lectures do still get dragged towards the lowest common denominator, which leaves some kids really bored. I am not sure how to teach to a class with such a wide range of skills. Ideally, the students at the very bottom of the curve would get sent back to take some remedial courses, but I can’t see that being a widely acceptable practice as college costs money and everyone is interested in funneling the students all the way through to a degree, somehow. We as teachers are discouraged from failing students, but then the value of a BS degree of good students drops with every poor students graduating despite having learned squat.

Who is the one who tells a student “Maybe this is not a major for you” or “You need to go back and learn some calculus and then re-take the class”? The thing is that what’s best for the student may not be the best for enrollment numbers on which department budgets hinge. Consequently, we go soft on the people who really should not be getting our degrees. I try to mind my own business and am no rebel, but this issue makes me wish I were. It makes me sick that everything is always only about money, and that even our core mission — educating students — has to deteriorate for this reason.

Xykademiqz Goes to Electives Night

I live and work in the US and am an American citizen, but I am not US-born; I came here to go to grad school. I spent my formative years in a small European country and had the equivalent of K-12 and undergrad education in a system considerably different than the one in the US. As my kids progress through American public schools, I get ever more aware of how many differences there really are between the systems.

My eldest will start high school in the fall, so I went to parent orientation and later to Electives Night with my son. Allow me to just say — Oh. My. God! So many awesome choices!

But let me start by describing the high school system I went through. I have no idea how the system looks now, but when I went to school you picked a general area of interest/specialization when you were entering high school and then picked a school that was strong in that area and that would take you (besed on GPA). There were also a number of vocational schools, and those on the academic track. As an example, I picked “Math and Natural Sciences” and my childhood BFF picked “Humanities and Social Sciences”. We both ended up going to a neighborhood high school that happened to be very strong in both areas, and it enabled us to continue playing volleyball, which was very important to both of us in high school. But once you picked the area and school, the curriculum was set for you. For instance, both my BFF and I had the native language, math, science, foreign languages, gym, art, history, etc., but the difference was in how much of each we had. For example, I had the native language 4x  per week all 4 years; math 5x days per week all 4 years; physics, chemistry, biology I think 4x  per week each  all 4 years; gym 2x per week days all 4 years; art 1x per week for maybe 2 years; geography 2x per week for 3 years; history 2x per week for 2 years; sociology 2x per week for 2 years; I think 1 year of philosophy (I loved it so much!) 2x per week; I had Latin 2x a week for a year, and I had one foreign language 2x per week all 4 years (that was one language out of 2 that we had in grades 3-8, I had to keep learning the one that I started in grade 5, which wasn’t English). At some point we got a computer lab maybe 2x per week; it would be laughable according to today’s standards. In contrast, my BFF also had math all 4 years but not 5x per week, maybe 3. She had most of the natural sciences for 2 years, but instead had much more social sciences and history, had 2 foreign languages all 4 years plus Latin for 2 or 3 years, I forget;  multiple sections of native language, courses in world literature, also what would here be advanced keyboarding. And she had a lot more art. I don’t think any of us had music in high school.

The state in the US where I currently live with my family has good public schools, and we also live in a good public school district. In my son’s soon-to-be high school, to graduate he has to have 4 credits of English, 3 credits of science, 3 of math, and 3 of US history, 2 credits of a foreign language, 1.5 credits of gym, and 0.5 credits of health, and a certain number of electives. [0.5 credit = 1 semester of class meeting every day (5x per week).]

OMG the electives! They are so awesome! First, I cannot get over how amazing the art department is. They have 0.5-credit (semester-long) courses in Art Appreciation (you get to choose different media, paint, draw, sculpt, photograph etc for 2 weeks to see what they like), Drawing (levels 1-3), Sculpting, Photography, Glass/Metal class, several courses in Digital Art (one one Adobe Photoshop, one on Adobe Illustrator, one on making animation — from storyboarding to the final movies…) How fuckin’ awesome is that?

Now, as you may have noticed, I doodle. I have no training whatsoever beyond the 2x per week in class during K-8 and the 1x per week in high school. I drew/sketched a lot in (the equivalent of) middle school; there was a period when I drew comic books and I was always an avid comic book reader (more on that some other time), but these were always regarded as frivolous pursuits. I doodled when I wanted but I never considered putting concentrated effort into it and wasn’t really encouraged to. I pretty much stopped drawing in high school, when it was first and foremost academics, then volleyball, then boys. Also, I was really into physics competitions so I spent a lot of time just doing problems, practicing. So I am not kidding when I say I probably draw as well or as poorly now as I did in high school, because I basically completely stopped drawing afterwards. I have no idea why, and I have no idea why I am getting back into it now, but it’s fun, even though I am oh so rusty. But it makes me happy somehow! I think this new place inspired me to experiment a little…

But I digress. OMG the art department! I started imagining how awesome it would have been for a kid like me to be able to take some art courses! That would have been such wonderful relaxation and a chance to perfect the craft. I so wish I were my kid taking one of these awesome courses… So many things to do!

Next we went to the business/IT department. They offer courses from keyboarding, intro to programming, as well as courses focusing on software (Excell, Word, etc), some that are open to upperclassmen like accounting, marketing. The computer lab is gorgeous, well equipped.

Then music — I had no music in any form in high school. These guys have chorus, band, and orchestra. Every kid gets to play an instrument! In my home country, the only people who played any instruments were the kids who passed auditions for music schools when they were in grades 1-3, and then attended these pretty serious schools extracurricularly; music in public schools K-8 did not involve anyone touching any instruments other than a recorder or a xylophone; we sang a bit and listened to music and sort of learned to read notes, but not much. My Spouse is gifted in music and did have a strong music education (had 12 years of music school); alas,  not me, as I didn’t pass the music school audition when I was in 2nd grade owing to the lack of natural ability and that was it. A few years ago at a party at an American colleague’s house, I was the only one who had never played an instrument, everyone else had, at least for a little bit; I felt really crappy. Now I know that’s because here in the US everyone has to play an instrument in middle and high school, regardless of talent, which does make me feel a little better.

Then the World Languages Department — so awesome! They offer Spanish, French, German, and Chinese. You can pick 1 or 2, perhaps even more, anything you like! I was kind of salivating. Where I went to school, a school taught English grades 3-8, then another language depending on the school  (German, French, Russian, more recently Italian) in grades 5-8. But by going to a certain elementary school you were locked into a specific language. Here, in my son’s school, languages are 1 credit courses, which means they meet daily all year. I would have loved to have daily instruction in 2 foreign languages…

There were departments of Family and Consumer Science (learn how to cook, sew, interior design,  healthcare leadership courses), then the Engineering/Automotive department (body shop, woodworking shop, and a pretty cool engineering design department where kids who are thinking about engineering can get a head start with pretty serious project-based courses).

My kid is taking several required honors courses and has 2.5+ electives credits to choose from. He  wants to take 1 credit of French, 1.5 credit of band/jazz, and is leaning towards 0.5 credits of digital art/animation.

I am also amazed at how helpful, open, and responsive all the teachers are. There are a number of young energetic ones, a whole bunch of counselors (we never had anything like that when I was growing ip), and generally a good network of adults keeping checks and balances. I can see why kids may find themselves a little bewildered when they go to college, especially to a big R1 like the one where I teach and where they are pretty much on their own. Sure, there are academic advisors, but professors mostly mind their own business and are probably nowhere near what the students are used to from K-12.

I have newfound appreciation for the US school system. I still stand by my opinion that the middle school curriculum is pretty vacuous, it seems like everyone just expects the kids to be busy growing, sprouting hair and zits while drowning in hormones, and that’s about it. But it looks like high school will be serious and a lot of fun. While there may be places in the world where kids get a better hard-core math and science background, a US public school in a good district seems, at least for the moment, like it will do a pretty good job. I don’t know of other countries where the public school system offers so many choices — my kid actually told me “For the first time, I can actually choose what I want to do!” When I was his age, I never missed such options because they were never available. In hindsight, it would have probably been awesome to explore a little bit off the academically rigorous math and science path. 


The semester started last week. I am again teaching a junior/senior elective for majors and it looks like it might be a rough semester.

The course I am teaching follows a basic, required course in the major. I find the students are poorly prepared, more poorly than the class I had last semester. The students  are quiet and look positively terrified. I know it takes a little while for people to warm up and start answering my in-class questions, so that will come with time. But I am being quite alarmed by all the things that they say they have never seen before, because, if that’s true, then I have to significantly rethink the class. Sure, I suppose they might be fibbing, but I do believe think most of them have simply never seen  the material or, if they have, then it really didn’t stick at all and they genuinely don’t remember it.

Last week and this week, we are reviewing the material from the previous course, and it’s going very slowly. I may have to take more time simply to get them up to where they would actually need to be, which means cutting out some of the new stuff.

Also, the lack of facility with math always rears its ugly head, but at least that’s not particularly surprising. Any physical science field that requires a lot of physics has to be taught math really rigorously, and the math department does a very good job. The problem is that, owing to a recent idiotic progressive change in the curriculum for our major,  which is supposed to give the students more flexibility to  freely choose easy courses outside of the major customize their program of study,  some important formerly required math courses have now become electives (e.g. how can linear algebra and differential equations not be required just fuckin’ blows my mind) and now many students elect not to take them. Also, many of the required math courses are mismatched in timing with the relevant courses in the major.

Perhaps more importantly, on top of pure math, the next  layer is often missing, and that is the layer where the students are taught physics while using the math tools. This is where they should simultaneously be taught how to build their intuition about the physics with the help of math (math is your friend, people!!!)  and how to better understand the ability of math to capture the physical world. What  we need are slower-paced calculus-based physics courses and less jam-packed syllabi  in the lower-level courses for our major. The way physics for non-physicists courses are taught right now is woefully inefficient: there is too much material in each one of these courses, everything is only touched upon, and the kids retain absolutely nothing. It’s a complete waste of time. Considering that many students haven’t had physics as a standalone subject until college, maybe I shouldn’t lament but should be in awe that the kids have as much proficiency as they do.

People say that we discourage our physical science majors by throwing so much math and physics and chemistry at them when they join the university. That it’s boring and kills their natural creativity and that we should get them more chances to design right away and whatnot. First, if you are going to be a professional scientist or engineer, you need to know that stuff. There is no way around it. You cannot do/create/design anything new and have it work without being able to recognize whether or not it violates the basic laws of nature. So there is no doubt in my mind that a solid foundation in basic math, physics, and chemistry is the core of physical science education. I don’t know how we make it less boring and more appealing — I thought all of it was fascinating to begin with. There are freshman design courses sprouting all around the country, many with a humanistic component, where kids are taught to interface with the communities and solve actual existing problems.  I think that is great and helps motivate a lot of kids, but we can’t forget that in order to be independent scientists and engineers we have to give them a lot of basic science tools — sure, it’s cool to make a product for someone in the community as a freshman, but don’t forget that there was an instructor there to catch the (often obvious) fallacies in the many iterations of the design. For most kids, we are not stifling their unique unadultarated genius with these basic courses; we are giving them the tools so they would be able to work independently to express their creative ideas once they have their diploma in hand.

But perhaps what would help more than anything is somehow magically undoing the years of programming in middle and high school that tell kids math is stupid and boring and useless, and that only hopeless nerds like science and engineering…