Monday, October 12, 2009

How my daughter became 3/4's of a genius and what that matters....

After a long, soccer-dominated weekend with light posting I have a number of things I want to write about today, some of which are actually time-sensitive and significant. Instead, I am going to spend most of the morning grading student papers....

But I thought this was funny at first, and then later I wasn't so sure.

On my younger daughter's bus [she's in eighth grade] there is a boy who can solve the Rubik's Cube in something like 15-20 seconds. He's been trying to teach my daughter, who is--[how shall we say this charitably?]--as three-dimensionally challenged as her Dad. But, with written instructions and patience, he has gotten her about three-quarters of the way through the process. She can now make a Rubik's Cube look three-quarters solved on all six faces simultaneously.

[The next move is conceptually pretty difficult it seems, and she has been stalled out there for several weeks.]

OK--you got it? She can sort of, incompletely, almost solve a Rubik's Cube.

So during the down-time between matches at a soccer tournament, a Rubik's Cube dropped out of somebody's backpack and she picked it up. It has become a reflex, so she started twisting and turning, and ... voila! A three-quarters' solved cube.

No, she told them, I haven't learned how to finish it, and tossed it aside to fish in her own backpack for her Ipod.

Except that the other girls then crowded around in awe, and then started calling their parents over to see the prodigy on their team--their own goalie!--who could nearly but not quite solve a Rubik's Cube.

I kid you not: for the rest of the day people made a big deal over a partially solved Rubik's Cube, even to the point of a parent coming up to me and telling me how proud I must be to have a daughter that smart.

Before you ask, this is not a soccer team filled with academic losers--just the opposite. This is a team filled with girls going to the pick of northern Delaware's public and private schools, almost of all of whom are riding honor roll grades.

But the Rubik's Cube made my daughter seem to be a genius...?

This happened a couple of months ago, but even last weekend a parent mentioned it to me again as if it were a significant indicator of mental superiority {It's great to have a goalie as smart as your daughter is.]

The dumbing down of American education is one thing: people discuss it all the time. This strikes me, however, as symptomatic of the dumbing down of our own expectations of what our children will achieve.

At middle-school open house last month I listened very carefully to parent talk about their expectations.

I heard one parent say to another that she hoped the science teacher didn't expect her to help with the homework, because she'd never gotten that science stuff. The other parent agreed, and added math to the mix.

I had a parent conference last year when my same apparently-near-genius daughter was having trouble with Algebra I. The school suggested she drop the class; I just wanted to know what parts I needed to help her with. The teacher got very uncomfortable at the thought of a parent actually helping with algebra homework. Most of our parents are not really equipped to help with algebra, I was told.

The same school awarded multiple--and I seriously mean multiple--academic awards at the end of the year, to the point where it seemed like everybody who managed to even stay awake in class received one. Most improvement in behavior during math class by a left-handed student of Lithuanian descent.... My daughter later confirmed for me that two students who received "D's" actually got awards in those classes.

And their parents were out there applauding and commemorating the happy event.

In my day job I meet parents all the time who will tell me--often in front of their own children--that this kid or that kid needs to major in something that does not involve a lot of math or science, because he doesn't do very well with "things like that."

I don't blame the schools or the teachers or the I-pod. I don't blame the government [which is probably one of the few times you'll hear a libertarian say that].

I blame us.

There has always been a deep vein of anti-intellectualism in American society, but lately parents--even those who seem to be pushing their children's education--have been mining that vein in earnest. We seem to have separated the two concepts of getting good grades and getting a good education. What drives public school reform is the necessity [at least we are told it is a necessity] to produce graduates with the skills necessary to corporate entry-level employees. Much the same mandate is now driving our colleges and universities.

The idea that a school system exists to create well-educated individuals with a background in the liberal arts and an understanding of their responsibilities as American citizens seems ... conspicuous by its absence.

In Delaware we have now reached the point--at least in the nothern end of the State--wherein the high-school selection process for our brighter children now has all the drama one used to associate only with applications to college. Why? Because only a few of our schools even make a pretence at real, tough education ... and we have accepted that reality.

My daughter's elevation to near-savant rank among her peers for being almost able to solve a Rubik's Cube is symptomatic of what we continue to do in America today on all sides of the political spectrum: settling for delusions of adequacy that we have managed to mislabel as excellence.


kavips said...

Well said..

But according to my spouse, my first born completely solved the Rubik's puzzle at age 1...

We have evolved as a fabric of complexities... As every little thread progresses we now, with our unsurpassed collective intellectual base, have the luxury of splitting ends (so to speak) to create a better "better" plan.. Our successors of course, who need to justify their own existence, have no choice but to improve upon what we do, so they come up with a better "better, better" plan... Somewhere we pass the point of optimal returns. We add on unnecessary layers.

We are due for a catharsis of sorts. At some point we need to get back to "what simply works." This problem is not just in education, but business, government, and our emotional lives as well.

WE are saturated with advice. We worry over the consequences of imaginary actions, so much so that we take no action to rectify our problem..

In every capacity we have become reduced to being like "Hamlet"...

Like him, it's time where we reach the point and say fuck it and start thrusting our swords...

Chris said...

My daughter is a sophomore at UDel now (also my alma mater, though we live outside Baltimore). She also played soccer, both rec and travel teams and high school. She also has trouble with math (not so much science), which I attribute to the incredibly awful algebra teachers she had. (I still believe that much of her problem with math is emotional, not intellectual.) I was her math tutor, as I got through differential equations at UDel, and having observed the algebra teachers, I would call them facilitators if I was in a charitable mood. They assigned problems, collected homework, and did a few examples on the board, but did not *teach* how to actually solve the problems. And this is a high school that consistently gets rated in the top 5% nationally in terms of academic achievement. (Which begs the questions, "How are the schools rated?" and "How bad must most schools be?")

She was considered the "brains" of her soccer teams because of her general education and overall knowledge of a variety of topics, plus the ability to draw conclusions from those random bits of information. What my high school peers were expected to do as a matter of course (HS class of 1969).

Yes, standards have been watered down, because that is far easier, both academically and politically, than holding all students to high standards. It's also because most parents WANT it that way. Whether they had trouble with meeting high standards and want to make life easier for their kids (nice thought emotionally, not so much in terms of results), or they have sipped the egalitarian results Kool-Aid, what we're seeing now is high school diplomas that often mean little more than "we've taught them to respond when their name is called."

I'd like to see separation of education and the state. I'm reasonably certain that most people involved would like a totally private education system, with all the benefits of competition, than the thin gruel of the monopoly jobs-program-for-educrats we have now.

tom said...

Did the kid teaching your daughter actually solve the Rubik's cube, or just memorize the mostly mechanical process from a book or web site?

Steven H. Newton said...

He actually solved it himself--he's something of a math prodigy, a legit one. Then he memorized a shorter solution he found from another kid in a competition.

Let's Be Real! said...

Hi Steven,

Whether you memorize an algorithm to solve the Rubik's Cube or you figure it out without any guidance, the sense of accomplishment and increase in self-esteem is what's most important. Here's a program that's based on bringing that to all children - You CAN Do the Rubik's Cube! program was created to share the benefits of solving the Rubik's Cube with America's youth. From there they can pretty much begin to approach all challenges with a different attitude and confidence. You can share it with your readers and if you want to learn more visit As an educator, I'm sure you will see the value. And your daughter can finally finish the third layer - stage 6 in the You CAN Do the Rubik's Cube! Solution Guide.

Steven H. Newton said...

Point taken, but, ah, if I use the sentence with respect to my daughter

Learning the Rubik's Cube from the boy on the bus the proper emphasis in this case is not

Learning the Rubik's Cube

But instead

from the boy on the bus.

pandora said...

My 15 year old son used the word "bravado" the other day and a parent called him a brain. The bar has really been lowered.

tom said...

ok, i'm impressed. not many people can. took me about a day & a half back in jr high when it first came out.

i still remember how disgusted & disappointed i was a few weeks later when i learned that there was a rote solution with only one step that required any intelligence or problem solving skill.

but still (if you don't cheat) it's one of the most challenging topology puzzles i've ever encountered.

it's also sort of amusing to see how frustrated one of the speed-solvers gets & how long it takes them to figure out that you've rendered their cube insoluble by popping a corner piece out & rotating it