20 Jan

A lot of America’s pre-college education seems to focus around making sure that kids know things. I think it should focus more on teaching kids that they don’t.

We teach kids the equations they’ll need for their plug-and-chug recognition homework. “Question type a takes equation process type b with steps c through g.” It focuses on making sure that kids can recall what chapter heading a certain phraseology fell under and and what process they were told in that chapter they should use to solve it. “Do you know what sort of thing it is that you needed to know in order to attack this problem?”

But we never teach kids how to handle not knowing what they need to do to attack a problem.

It’s a problem I first ran into in college. My math and physics problems, they were derivation and proof based. “Here are the theorems and axioms, have fun figuring out how to build your own damn process.”

Uh, no.

Especially since by “figure out your own damn process” my TA’s definitely meant “recreate the already universally-accepted specific series of variable translations we’ve written down in our solution set. No no, don’t do math, originate it.”

Now, there is a dichotomy in me. I am not a math or physics person. You start to say either of those words at me, and I’m going to run screaming into the nearest hipster humanities student-filled coffee shop. I’m writer. I’m also a biologist. Once Caltech finally prints my diploma, it’ll say I earned a B.S. in both.

But really, the workings of biology are something that make much more inherent sense to me. I spent months’ worth of free time hours over the course of my high school career lolling around on my bed, Google searching the shit out of my laptop and staring at the wall while playing around with concepts and generating designs in my head for ways to tweak biomolecules into HIV-attacking machines. There was – is – no set process to calculate the cure for AIDS. That meant I was free to run around with factoids in my own imagination, hurtling through a tunnel of question-answer-roadblock, question-answer-roadblock, as I tried to use what I knew and what I could learn to fill in the blanks of what I didn’t know while wrestling with this problem. Nobody was grading me on how I worked out the problem. No one was going to tell me I had to figure it all out by a certain time and then slap some red slashes and a hopefully two-digit number evaluation at the top. The project was entirely mine to work on. There wasn’t the pressure of expected performance to numb my thinking capacity with adequacy-anxiety. I had the time and mental freedom to think and rethink and unthink and think again without anyone telling me I wasn’t doing it well enough, fast enough, proper enough.

The work I did entirely on my own self-motivation and un-judged learning capacity ended up getting me into a lab the summer after my frosh year of college to work on a project that was in fact trying to build a new sort of biomolecule, a grandaddy triton of antibodies, essentially, to overcome the whole HIV-has-ridiculously-sparse-spikes, oh-shit-normal-antibodies-can’t-get-good-avidity-to-that. ‘Course, that’s when I found out that while for me the mindwork of research is tantalizing, I despise petri dishes and aliquots of clear liquid with a passion so fiery it burnt my enthusiasm for the underlying problem to a dead crisp. And so ended my lab career.

But anyhoo, I tell all of that to contrast it to those terrible math and physics problems I had to grapple with on my frosh and sophomore college homework. The problem there was that there was a particular blueprint for building the process. I couldn’t just fiddle around dreamily with the nuts and bolts, wandering around in factland away from the glowering stare of a deadline. Because those math and physics homeworks were due tomorrow. And I needed to know how their axiomatic parts fit together by, like, yesterday. Probably by last week, actually.

But, despite going to one of the top universities in the nation, I was at a school full of smart researching professors and smart ready-to-learn students where the smart researching professors didn’t know how to communicate with their smart students through the language of lecturer for shit. I had the axioms chucked at me in a lump and never had time spent or given to think about their implications. Sure, there was this phrase, and it said this thing, but goodness knows I was never given a chance to properly think about what the fuck did the phrase actually mean. And when it came to those homework proofs and derivations, there was no set protocol or process for doing them. This wasn’t “how do you do this computational procedure?” This wasn’t “how do you fit these parts to this process?” This was “what tricks of second-order cleverness do you need to play hide and seek with these notation symbols and thus pop out in Neverland?”

How. the fuck.

And, because I’d gone through high school being a good student who’d always made sure she knew what process a question was asking her to proceed with, I naturally looked at these procedureless questions due in a matter of hours and began to cry.

No, actually. My hours of struggling through physics and math sets are more saturated with tears and skin-grating frustration than anything else. I didn’t know how to go about figuring out the problem, and I was time-limited enough that I felt too pressured to spend time playing around with its components to see if maybe something I did would work. I expected myself to know what I was supposed to do, now. And I didn’t.

I was paralyzed. I didn’t know what I needed to know, and I had very little confidence that I’d be able to figure out what I needed to know before the set was due in any manner that wouldn’t result in my brain feeling like a nuclear bomb had gone off in it a despairingly short time in, and so I froze. I hated myself. I felt so. fucking. inadequate. All because I’d not been taught how to figure out a solution – because there was a known, set solution already – from scratch. Because with all the good lectures did me, I was approaching my homework sets with an effective knowledge base of zero.

Sure, there were lots of issues going on with my math and physics education for those two years, and those problems weren’t all because of my lack of mathematical capacity or the style of my pre-college education. (Take, for example, the unmedicated clinical depression I had at the time.) But the fact that I wasn’t emotionally or conceptually prepared to handle not knowing at least what it was that I should have known to figure out a problem – that was still a factor.

So, three years later, having gotten my head out the mire enough to figure out how to at least somewhat productively stumble around in the muck of it all, I do say that freshman-me might have benefited quite a bit if my pre-undergrad education had focused a mite less on “let’s check if you know what to know” and more on helping us learn how to bear up against when we wouldn’t know. I’d have appreciated learning how to the statement, “Okay, kids. You don’t know anything.”

“Now, deal with it.”


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