I’ll learn in my own time, thank you

Sometimes I think I understand math. You may not think it is unusual for a scientist type to understand such stuff, but I can assure you that in my case it is amazing.

I still have in my possession, someplace, a bar graph that I was forced to create when I was in the seventh grade. We had to take these tests to see how smart we were. It was probably never called an intelligence test, but all of us students knew that’s what it really was.

When the scores came back, everyone had to graph how well they’d done in a whole lot of categories that I don’t recall because none of them were anything that I was even remotely interested in at the time. I remember having a horrible time accomplishing this because I didn’t know how to graph my math score. You see, it was a negative number, and they hadn’t invented number lines way back then. 

When I met with the school counselor she advised me not to take too much math during the remainder of my life. I was pretty happy with that! I was just 12 or 13 years old, and I figured I had just dodged a bullet. Then I found out later that only people with math skills got to do the really fun stuff, like blow things up in chemistry lab, dissect frogs to count parasites and make a living for their families. 

Needless to say I got a late start in math. I remember how difficult it was to get through the minimum math requirements for high school. So I was pretty surprised when I came back from the United States Army at the age of 23 and found that I could do algebra, trigonometry, calculus and statistics pretty well. I just had to work at it. No one told me that when I was in the seventh grade. 

On the other hand, it may be that the difference wasn’t all work. Perhaps my brain changed between the ages of 13 and 23. In fact, that is pretty much what happens in any 10-year period of one’s life. Our brains change. Presently, my brain seems to still be changing in strange ways.

This whole experience has caused me to think about how we educate scientists. Children have to learn a lot of stuff even if they don’t become scientists. However, adults mostly overlook something about learning. It takes time to learn. 

We don’t ask children to merely learn things. We ask them to learn things within a given amount of time. These are separate tasks. I might not be able to learn algebra, or French, in just nine months. Given two years, I might do just fine.

It is actually even worse than that. We insist that students of all ages not only learn the material within a time frame, but usually at a given time. Everyone knows that learning math at eight in the morning is not the same as learning math at two in the afternoon. Two in the afternoon is my nap time. 

Studying algebra at 12 is not the same as studying algebra at 23. However, if you don’t learn algebra on time you forfeit your chances to ever get to blow things up in chemistry lab. What a stupid rule! When I was in the Army, I got to blow things up. I did just fine, and I hadn’t even started math yet. 

So why do grownups get to decide what, when, where, and how I get to learn things? I bet most politicians, school administrators, teachers and parents, for that matter, can’t even do differential calculus. So why do they get to design how to “not let any children get left behind” or what the “common core” should be?  Who knows what everyone should know, and when they should know it?


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