Testing Responsibility

You may remember that reader Loki on the run wrote:

We may have spent a hundred years investigating how people learn, but the best way to learn to ride a bike is to get on one and try, and to pick yourself up when you fall off and try again. Having a parent run along behind to hold the bike up is good at first, as are trainer wheels, but eventually, you have to spend time riding the damn bike.

It seems to us that many (perhaps most) students today have been given the idea that they have no responsibility to learn and that teachers have all the responsibility for their failure to master the material. They believe in instant tratification [sic] and will not put in the time with the homework and the exercises. That is, they will not ride the bike and expect to become BMX celebrities simply by being told about angular momentum and bearings and friction.

Loki is, to some extent, right. If students don’t take responsibility for their learning, then there’s no hope. Despite the teacher’s best efforts, a kid who’s bent on shirking the material won’t learn it. The old adage “You can lead a horse to water” comes to mind. But perhaps Loki is being a little too hard on the students, on the teachers, on everyone. Still, it’s difficult to know what Loki means by responsibility. You might be suprised that incentives (such as money or the promise of a class party) are less effective at bolstering performance than really explicit directions and prompts. (Don’t believe me? I’ve got references.) So maybe we should at least hold teachers responsible for letting the students know what they’re responsible for.

That said, I’d like to acknowledge that people can do more with the help of others than they otherwise could alone. Some psychologists have studied this phenomenon formally. They’ve identified a zone of proximal development (ZPD). The ZPD is something like the teaser accompanying the end credits of a television show that gives some hint as to what will happen next time. The very existence of the ZPD shows that learning is necessarily social. Or at least, effective learning is social. I’m not going to argue that people cannot learn alone. But we’re talking about building effective classrooms. Let’s not make it harder for the students just because we can. So, to use Loki’s metaphor, it’s very useful to have training wheels and parent nearby. On this neither of us disagrees. The problem comes in when we try to decide what the parent (or teacher) ought to do.

In the model which Loki presents as standard, it seems first the teacher presents a repository of knowledge—very likely in the way of facts and procedures, e.g., the product of two negative real numbers is a positive real number, or the algorithm for multi-digit addition—then the students memorize and reproduce the facts and procedures. Teachers evaluate the degree to which students have mastered the material by way of tests. It is very likely that these tests ask the students to answer questions written in a format consistent to the teacher’s original presentation. To perform well, the students need to memorize and drill until their responses become automatic. This form of evaluation suffers from at least one critical problem: it cannot distinguish between accurate performance and thorough understanding.

The performance of a good novice and an expert can often appear the same. For example, a child who simply learns his addition tables by rote can respond as quickly and accurately as another child who has a reasonable grasp of the mechanism represented by addition. Thus when the two students move onto problems which require a “carry,” the first student will have a significantly harder time simply because he has more facts to memorize, whereas the second student will be able to generalize the rules of addition to accommodate the new problem.

I’ve discussed test design before, but for Loki’s benefit maybe I should quickly recapitulate. A Good Question should be able to distinguish between accidental correct answers due to rote memorization and intended correct answers resulting from mastery over the subject. Let’s build up a good problem from a bad one. When learning about prime factorization, teachers often introduce the concept of the least common multiple (LCM) and greatest common factor (GCF) of two numbers. Therefore, a natural question to ask on a test might be:

Standard Question. Find the least common multiple of 12 and 21.

In itself, there’s nothing especially bad with the Standard Question. It gets to the point, shows that the student has some computational understanding of what’s going on, and can reliably produce the answer to this type of question. In fact, a Good Question draws on the content of interest. If we’re interested in LCM, then this question is on its way to becoming a Good Question. But if the student taking the test has access to a TI-89 or other sophisticated calculator (as I did), then all he needs to do is to type LCM(12, 21) into the calculator. Surely, the use of technology is not something to be scoffed at. I’m using a computer to type up this paper, after all. I’m not about to propose everyone throw out their computer and write everything by hand. But if our aim is to teach kids something about the structure of numbers, then maybe a heavy dependence on technology gets in our way. We really need to come up with a Better Question, one that a calculator can’t do. Let’s try.

Better Question. Tricia says that you can find the least common multiple of two numbers by finding their product and dividing by their greatest common factor. Does Tricia’s method always work? Explain your answer.

Well, we’re getting there. Except now Loki might object, and rightfully, that this Better Question doesn’t readily test whether students can “ride the bike.” It asks them to identify the various parts. It even requires them to be able to build the bike. But it doesn’t ask them to ride it. So, maybe a Good Question does it all: it requires kids to build and ride their own bike. What more responsibility could we ask for then that?

Good Question. Tricia says that you can find the least common multiple of two numbers by finding their product and dividing by their greatest common factor. Does Tricia’s method always work? Explain your answer. Find the LCM of 12 and 21 in at least two different ways.

And notice that the Good Question requires students to calculate the LCM in at least two different ways—here we sort the lazy memorizers from the more dedicated kind. What makes the Good Question good, though, is that it asks the students to synthesize knowledge on the spot. That’s not a skill you can easily happen on by mistake. Sure, it’s a little bit harder to grade, but who cares; isn’t that the point of being a teacher?

As a test writer, I see myself in a very funny and useful position. Teachers have a habit of “teaching to the test.” So if I alter the way I write tests, it seems—at least in theory—that I accomplish real change in the way teachers prepare their students. Ideally, teachers would have enough mastery over their subject so that they could let students lead the learning themselves (as is done in the Math Circle run by the Kaplans at Northeastern and Harvard, or in schools which have adopted a curriculum tailored by Project SEED). In those classrooms, the shift in responsibility is more apparent—though perhaps no more real, since the teacher must keep a careful eye on the course of the class and give constant, mindful guidance. Perhaps this is more what Loki had in mind. I’m not sure; hopefully, he’ll elaborate. For now, I feel like I’m working on both the teacher and the student in a way that produces a broad effect on practice without having to sort through the politics of education policy.

In my next response, I’ll address the social component of learning more directly. Sorry guys, this post went in a different direction than I had initially intended. If I don’t use the words authoritarian and authoritative in my next post, please leave me an angry comment.


See, for example, Carroll, W. R., Rosenthal, T. L., & Brysh, C. G. Social transmission of grammatical parameters. Psychological Reports, 1971, 29, 1047–1050.

Rosenthal, T. L. & Zimmerman, B. J. Language and Verbal Behavoir: Social Learning of Synactic Constructions in Social Learning and Cognition, Academic Press: New York, 1978.

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Dead Man Floats

When I woke up yesterday, something told me I ought to go back to sleep. To celebrate the fourth, DJ and I hit up Christopher’s in Porter Square after we saw off Steve in a cab headed for his ship with his crewmate (Uncle) Dizzy, someone whom I had only just met but had immediately adopted me as his own because I refill my pint glass with an athletic celerity.

Scott, the bartender, told me that last call on the fourth was scheduled for midnight. DJ and I left, the last ones to leave, close to 1:30am. Just months after my college graduation, I’m too old and too out of practice to close a bar and not pay for it twelve hours later. The sun is too unkind. The trees are too loud.

After work, Janice picked me up at the Braintree T. She was tinkering under the hood in a no standing zone near the main entrance. Her car burns oil and we had quite a drive ahead of us, and it was already close to midnight.

“JC called. Mom had a heart attack,” she told me as she helped me load my bag in the trunk.

“I told her to go to the hospital yesterday when I talked to her. I thought she needed a few liters of fluid,” I answered.

This morning JC called again. This time I picked up. My mother was air-lifted about four hundred miles away to a hospital in Sudbury, second best in Canada he said, but things looked bad. Her heart had failed her. Only about a quarter was still functioning, the rest of it was probably dead. I stood in the middle of Commercial Street, the main thoroughfare in Provincetown with my father, sister, and her boyfriend Andrew. We were on a mission: to find Andrew a bathing suit. I had just picked up a pair of navy blue running shoes for myself, a purchase about a year over due.

“Thanks for calling. I appreciate your taking care of my mother,” I told him with utter sincerity.

“Well, I didn’t do a good enough job, now did I?” he answered. JC and I have never exchanged more than 250 words, less than a middle school book report. Now his voice was shaking. Emergencies can make strangers into family.

I replayed critical scenes every movie I’ve ever seen in mind head, measured my words, and tried to be comforting and appropriate. “You’ve done the right thing. There’s nothing left to do. All we can do now is wait.” My voice was noticeably flat. I put on a smile for my audience to explain that my mother was ill and almost certainly going to die. Now I know why couples break up in public. No one was angry. No one cried. We continued on our way to the next shop, to find Andrew a suit.

On the way I snapped at my father and apologized.

Once there, I ducked out again, this time to talk to my grandmother for the second time that day. I thought we were done talking, but she interrupted our goodbye with a very simple and moving prayer. I winced but the public setting saved me. I didn’t cry.

The walk back to the hotel lasted about twenty minutes. On the way Ellen, Paul’s wife, pulled me out of the crowd. She was with her daughter Gracie, who was happily nursing in the stroller, and Alice, their dog. A moment later Paul bounded out of the cigar store across the street. I walked into him, head down, and quickly. It seems to surprise everyone every time. For a moment I was able to suspend the severity of reality; I smiled without thinking too much about it. He reminded me that I find out about a job tomorrow. Even if I don’t get it, “there’s still purpose to your life,” he told me.

On the walk back, I pondered what that purpose might be. My dad filled the time with talk of submarines. The Germans or the Swedes, he couldn’t remember which, have developed a new submarine that leaves an almost invisible signature. It uses diesel and fuel cells rather than conventional nuclear technology. The hull is rubberized to absorb sonar, and all of the metal, even the dishwashers, are magnetically neutral. Maybe I’d take that commission in the navy, I thought. I could fight the good fight against Ikea.

There wasn’t much to do back at the hotel except swim. My dad challenged me to a few races. I gave him a crash course to the butterfly. Then we stewed in the jacuzzi a while. As he lounged, I practiced holding my breathe. First trial: 70 seconds; then: 63; third: 71; and finally: 82. I laid on my stomach with my arms and legs extended and my eyes closed. I tried to imagine what it’s like to be dead. I aimed to last longer at the start of each go and to be more convincing, at least to me, of my death. I let my limbs go limper than before. Over time I found muscles I hadn’t realized her tense and relaxed them. The bubbles turned me onto one side. I floated. I felt free.

Janice and Andrew left for the pool just as dad and I returned. Now there wasn’t anything left to do. I played a little Tito Puente in the background and started my routine of push-ups and crunches. My mother isn’t stable enough even to be a candidate for a heart transplant. The first from a collection short stories by Judy Budnitz, Flying Leap, crept into my mind.

In this story, a woman needs a heart transplant. Her sisters cajole their nephew, the woman’s son, to donate his. At the end of the story, the woman lives and thanks the son, who promptly dies. I’ve read most of the other stories in the book, and heard this one on NPR, and even installed an AC for the author’s sister a few weeks ago, but I just can’t get into it. Magic realism just isn’t my thing.

Tonight my sister made her signature boiled dinner. Tomorrow I may be in Ontario. Check me out if you’re in the Greater Sudbury area.

On the Road Again

Yesterday, Michelle, DJ, and I made it to New York in time for last night’s Tool concert despite Mass Pike’s being closed from the 128 Exit all the way through Auburn, at least. I’m not sure why I was there—I didn’t want to see Tool; I didn’t even have a ticket; nor did I intend to get one.—but as I’ve said before, “Danny has no soul, and I have no will.” And that’s probably why I spent from 9-11:30pm alone at the Pig & Whistle on the corner of 58th and 3rd. The Mets were playing the Yankees, but no one seemed to care much. In fact, it was just my luck that I wandered into what may be the city’s only Irish-gay-sports bar. Well, it wasn’t overwhelmingly any of those things. Popular Irish phrases were painted on some of the wooden rafters in Celtic script. And the waitress I chatted up towards the end of the game had come from Northern Ireland. She wasn’t sure of the rules of baseball. I admitted that neither am I. But I did explain that all it takes is one pitch to decide the game. My timing couldn’t’ve been better. It was the bottom of the ninth with two outs and two strikes. The teams were tied at six runs each. The last pitch let up a double, bumping the Mets up 7-6 to win just as I spoke. Four people cheered. I was one of them. I heard an unemphatic boo. It was time for my new friend to bus a table.

I read that at 11pm the bar was going to host an event which featured “Party Tunes.” I couldn’t guess if this would be worse than the Robbie Williams Millenium they had been quietly pumping during the game. Luckily, the crowd thinned out, giving me hope that I could finally start what I had come to do in the first place: math. All night I had lugged around my backpack, fully stocked with laptop, a few pages from a book on type theory and functional programming, one of my books on general relativity, and the things Michelle thought people might steal from DJ’s car. [Someday I will return her camera and CDs.] All night I had been spying a table by the door. From my view, it was free. When I got there, I saw that the man whom I asked to watch my beer while I stepped outside to talk to Susannah earlier in the night hadn’t quite left yet. It was obvious that I wanted to sit; perhaps it was harder to guess that I wanted to study geometry and not talk to strangers. And so for the next forty minutes we talked about race, the theater, and Harvard. When DJ and Michelle returned, he left immediately. Having only eaten two double cheeseburgers and about three-quarters of a pound of salted cashews all day, I was a little hungry. Not wanting to incur food costs, I forced DJ to dare me to ask for some nachos from the table of girls neighboring us. So I picked out the one who was closest and begged from some food under the pretense of saving my pride over a dare that I had concocted myself. They all thought me very brave and waived to us when we left moments later.

Being from Boston, we had no problem finding free parking on the street. However, in the excitement of the moment, DJ forgot to turn off the fan to the motor in his all-too-custom car. The battery was dead. But ho! I am a platinum-level AAA member. I’m covered for towing up to 150 miles and as many jumps to my battery as I need. The problem is, though, the service isn’t especially prompt. We waived down an unmarked, gypsy cabby who stopped and started us right up. At least we were on our way now.

Perhaps inspired by Harold and Kumar, DJ went out of his way to stop at a White Castle. I knew I would regret it. This morning I was right. Stick to the big three: McDonald’s, Burger King, and Wendy’s. There’s no reason to take in local cuisine. Ever. It’ll only make you sick.

Two hours and twenty minutes later, we were back in Boston. By this time the T had started running again, so we dropped Michelle off at a stop convenient for DJ and me and headed home. Rather than spend the following twleve hours on DJ’s couch, I accepted his offer, took his keys and car, and drove home. Now it makes sense to stop a moment to describe DJ’s car a bit more: it’s a 1981 Camaro Z-28 (or something close to that) with T-tops, painted in seven glorious and distinct shades of black, brown, grey, and blue, with a working panel of instruments—even the clock—except for the spedometer, and for some reason it speeds up initially when you put on the brakes. It’s like someone beat up the Batmobile and DJ found the corpse. Not knowing my speed, and without cars in front of me to use as a guage, I tried not to go too fast as I passed a police car waiting at a speed trap in the parking lot of the old golf range. I watched him edge out in my rear view mirror. But he decided against it. Still, DJ drives over two hundred miles averaging about 100 mph and nothing happens; I drive 35 in a 30 mph zone for fourteen seconds and I almost get pulled over. How does he do it?

Another Grown-up Experience.

Today (Friday) marks the one-week anniversary of a very important grown-up event: last week I sponsored Teymour during his road test. Now, this may not seem like a big deal at first glance, but I promise you it is. Remember when you, unless you’re Liz, a sixteen year old, scared and anxious to pass your driving exam. For those of you who aren’t Massachusetts I should explain a little. Here we require an adult, at least 21, and who has had his license for at least three years (or so), to sponsor the newbie, to loan a car, insurance, and license while a usually gruff state trooper monitors from the passenger seat. Last Friday, I was such a sponsor for Teymour.

His appoint was at 4pm exactly, though I somehow misunderstand him and thought it wasn’t until 4:30pm. I picked him up from the T at 2pm to practice driving. It had been a good five or six years since I drove the course, but since it was sufficiently short, I remembered it pretty well. Go out from the parking lot, take your first, legal right — this was almost a trick direction, as the immediate right is a one-way in the opposite direction — pull over, back up in a straight line, make a three-point turn, and head back to the RMV. Simple. Thankfully, I never had to back up in a straight line nor did I have to parallel park. Had either been required I’m sure I would’ve failed. My driving instructor, Mr. Lantini, had arranged a signal to guide me through the complications of parallel parking during the test, but, due to its illegality, I was all the more terrified by the possibility.

Luckily Teymour wouldn’t have to face such trials. Unfortunately, he drove over the curb during the initial practice run. Two hours later, however, he was ready to go. We were almost late. Remember I had misunderstood his appointment time. We raced back, as fast as an overly cautious, novice driver can go, really. It was only 4:03pm when we arrived.

The statie was nice — she was a jovial, round, black woman. While I normally don’t, this time I’m willing to draw on stereotypes. She was gregarious, sweet, and unassuming. She was sympathetic to Teymour. He’s old at 21, after all. Even as a foreigner — Teymour is from Paris, France, and holds both a French and Canadian passport — by American standards he was an American driving old maid. She told us that after work she doesn’t leave her house, or, if she does, she makes her husband drive: people are just too crazy to brave the road, she told us.

Teymour acted suprised whenever she gave her orders. He was almost genuinely confused when she asked him to stop and back up. I remained silent and disinterested. If the sponsor is caught coaching, the road test is automatically forfeited; nobody wanted that.

The cop looked at Teymour’s permit. “You came all the way down here from Cambridge” she asked.

“Yep,” Teymour responded. I had warned him not to sound too much of a dandy, but he just can’t help himself. Even a single word gave him away.

“Why’s that? It’s an awful long way.” To avert an awkward pause, and to make sure that he didn’t say, “Because I heard it was easy here,” I broke in.

“Oh, I live in Avon,” which is a neighboring town. You’ve got to go where the car is, the statie agreed. She continued. Eventually Teymour admitted that he isn’t an American citizen. Why was he here, then? School, of course. Oh, he went to Harvard. Gosh, that’s impressive. I can’t tell you how much I wish he hadn’t mentioned that. When I was in Scotland with Alli and DJ, we scorned DJ when he got drunk and told as many people as he could find that we went to Harvard. Everyone expects more, be it money or otherwise, even if we don’t have it.

She asked, “You must have a lot of student loans, then, right?” He didn’t. “So are you rich or something?”

There it was, that horrible, pained, extended silence.

Again, I sighed, smiled, and spoke, “I have plenty of student loans.” To be fair, I’m sure I do. I haven’t yet received any paperwork to confirm the amount of my loans, but I’m sure they’re substantial. Anyway, this was enough to appease the cop. She offered her hand. I gave her a flat high-five, to which she responded, “That’s the American way!” She left her hand out. Not to leave her hanging, I repeated the gesture. We were all in good spirits again.

“Take a left at this light.” We were almost back in at the RMV. Things were going well. Teymour turned into the parking lot. We were done. He was done. He had passed. I let him drive me back to Cambridge on the highway. I had to take the wheel from him three times to avert an accident. We made it, though, safely.

It’s hard to explain the sort of father-son relationship a road test can engender. I’m very flattered to have had the opportunity. The license hasn’t come in the mail yet, and I certainly will never let Teymour drive my car again.

I Need to Praise You Like I Should.

A few summers ago, back during my crazy college days, my friend Jackie stopped by my room to visit and catch up. She had been at UC Berkeley for the past couple months doing research in some sort of biology or neuroscience or history of science. Whatever it was, we didn’t talk about it. Rather, we reminisced about, of all things, a moment in her high school Spanish class.

She and her classmates were trying out the present subjunctive — Jackie and I didn’t attend the same high school; she went to Commonwealth, near Berklee School of Music. The laid-back, do-as-you-please music mantra infects that whole area in Boston pretty deeply. And from what I can tell, Commonwealth runs its school accordingly. I liked the semblance of order and underprivilege at my school. Still I can’t help but wonder how a school like hers would’ve affected me. — The task at hand: to explain to the class “Why my parents are pleased with me.” Now, I can tell you that this is a bad classroom exercise for a number of reasons. Chances are you can think of a few yourself, so I’ll spare us both the repetition. What’s worth noting, though, are the responses. By some stroke of bad luck for her, and convenience for my story, Jackie had to go first.

“My parents are pleased that I do my best,” she said confidently. That’s normal. My parents told me the same thing. Try your hardest and no more. That’s all you can do, that’s the best you can do. It’d hadn’t occured to me that anyone would respond differently.

But everyone else gave the same, different response. Their parents, they said, would be pleased so long as their kids were happy. Curious. It seemed that all the other parents were concerned explicitly with their child’s emotional welfare. Maybe our parents could take lessons from them. Research on motivation theory and praise from the 1980s until now suggests otherwise.

It’s an unwritten rule that harsh critism is somehow damaging to a child’s self-image. And we’ve long assumed that positive praise helps to construct a positive sense of self-worth. It turns out, however, that this is simply untrue.

Direct, personal validation after a success — something as simple and harmless as, “I’m so proud of you.” — can hinder a child’s performance. Yes, I know. It sounds outrageous. But it’s not. Such praise encourages the child, or anyone really, so long as he continues to succeed. As soon as the child meets with perceived failure, he’s likely to seize, much like a deer in headlights. Children how are overly praised in this fashion will eschew situations that they feel will cause them to look less than smart.

Growing up I had a friend, for anonymity’s sake, let’s call him Al. This guy is the single most selfish, irresponsible, horrible human being I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. Really. There’s a good chance the “Does not play well with others” report card comment was first written for him. I mean this kid was bad, with a capital B. What makes him so insufferable, I think, was the way his parents treated him. No matter what Al got whatever he wanted. The cost, the time, the impracticality of it never figured in. And when they weren’t spoiling him with material goods, honeyed words in his honor flowed from their mouths. “What a good boy.” “You’re the best.” “I couldn’t be prouder.”

And so Al needed to be the best. We’d played — yes I publical confess that we gather around a few time a week to play — Dungeons and Dragons. At the start of each new campaign we’d have to make new characters: figure out their race, alignment, skills, etc. At the beginning everyone is weak. It’s another one of those unwritten rules. You start out small and work your way big. Al hates this rule. He wants to be the biggest, the best from the start through the finish. He made such a fuss that we let him be the highest he could be in all the initial stats. The trick, though, he had to be human. So he was the best at being the worst. You see, unlike the other races, like elves or pseudo-dragons — I was two pseudo-dragons. Like their name suggests, they’re not dragons but magical, flying lizards no bigger than a cat. They have scales and a poison-tipped tail. We chose these two characters for me instead of one because they’re not especially powerful. However, when Al tried to sell me to a travelling circus I stung him in defense, sending him into a permanent coma. Pseudo-dragons can communicate to their master and no one else, and then, only through telepathy. I’d frequently fall asleep during gameplay. Then Bob, my owner, could play for me without his raising a ruckus.— the “normal” human can’t level up. He’s stuck with whatever he starts out with, including his health. As the game went on, everyone else in the group received more hit points, and therefore could fight the bigger, scarier enemies, as they gained more experience. Al didn’t. Not long into the game Al would die after one attack from a monster. He could no longer play. And that made him mad. He forced us to stop the game prematurely. No one could mention D&D in Al’s company for weeks without a fight.

In the face of failure, Al turned mean. It contradicted his parents praise, which he heard over and over and over again. It was impossible, even for his friends to escape it. When presented with a situation that might prove that he was not the best, Al became helpless. And this is the technical term, too, helpless. He couldn’t form strategies. He didn’t persevere. He gave up, picked up his ball, and went home. Sometimes, literally. Al is not alone. In fact, a little under half the population responds to difficulty in this way.

Once, after a long break from volleyball, Al took the longest to get back into the swing of things. He’d accompany each missed shot with an unprompted denigration of his ability, that is, with an excuse, “I was never good at spikes anyway.” Sometimes he spontaneously divert attention from whatever he thought to be a failure to one of his successes. After a failed dig, he might remind us, “I can land a somersault on my feet on the trampoline.” He’s parents had spoiled him with their praise, really. Their constant, personal validation had planted a deep-seated vulnerability and fear in him.

But only about half the population react helplessly. The other half answer in the face of difficulty with what psychologists call a mastery-oriented response. These kids see what other might call a failure as a chance to learn. I don’t mind telling you about the countless hours DJ and I spent playing that invidious video game Soul Caliber on his Sega Dreamcast. He’d play as Taki, a particularlyl pneumatic female ninja who fought with double ninjatos. I’d always choose Kilik, an orphan raised by temple elders and general badass with a bo staff.

After coming home from cross country practice around 4pm, DJ and I would play, regularly, until three, four, five, even six the following morning in a blood brawl, one-on-one in the games versus mode. We choose Misturugi’s alternative level, the one on the floating wooden platform in the middle of a lake during a winter battle in the mountains of Japan. Something about this particular stage we found soothing. One night we played for 278 rounds straight. Needless to say, we grew accustomed to each other’s fighting style. To this day, it is unwise for anyone — except for me, of course — to oppose DJ as Kilik.

Every once in a while a round would end in a tie, but inevitibly someone lost. If DJ lost, he might answer with a menacing though inviting, “Bring it on. Play harder.” Defeat only presented him another chance to get better. He stopped, analysed, and revised his strategy. Learning theoriest call such behavior metacognitive. And it’s exactly the sort of response educators, or at least educational literature, try to instill in their students.

People who display a mastery-oriented response to obstacles often blurt out self-directed motivating comments, things like, “I can do this.” And they’ll reason through the situation and adjust their action dynamically. DJ’s video game habbits exemplify the mastery-oriented learner: “How is he beating me?”

The tricky and interesting thing about praise and response is this: how a person reacts to an obstacle establishes that person’s contigent self-worth. Kids who feel they’ve somehow let their caretakers down by failing actually think that they themselves are failures. Children think that a bad kid always does poorly on tests at school. And, conversely, if a kid does poorly on tests at school, he must be a bad kid. And failures are somehow stickier than successes.

In one study, children in the fifth and sixth grades were separated into two groups of equal abililty (based on standardized tests) to perform a few tasks. Children prone to give the helpless response were in one; children likely to show a mastery-oriented response to the tests in the other. The first eight problems were designed so that all the children could successfully complete them. They were followed by four more problems that designed to lie beyond the students’ abilities. When asked, students in the helpless group reported only successfully completing between three and four of the problems on average, whereas the mastery-oriented group accurately recalled finishing eight of the problems correctly — twice the amount they were unable to complete. The first group were swamped by their failure to the exclusion of their successes.

But there is hope. The helplessness and mastery-orientedness aren’t hardwired. It is possible to elicit a mastery-oriented reponse through praise. And here’s the connection: praise which focuses on a child’s strategy and effort and not on the child himself can produce a mastery-oriented response to hardship.

So, it seems Jackie’s and my parents had it right. Their praise expectations have more complicated results. It inspired a desire for learning, persistence, greater self-worth, and self-directed motivation. Praise centered about strategy and effort tells a child that it’s okay to feel sad sometimes. At least it doesn’t preclude it. It takes the pressure off of outward appearence. Such praise allows a child to look vulnerable, to ask questions, to make mistakes. The Bible got it right, “Hate the sin, love the sinner.” But it missed, “Praise the work, encourage the worker.”

In retrospect, I should thank my parents, and I do — Hi, mom! — for wanting me to try hard rather than be happy. Thank goodness my parents weren’t hippies like those other parents at Commonwealth. I’m happier for it.

[If you want to read more about this sort of thing, check out Self-Theories by Carol Dweck. It’s a collection of essays on personality development and motivation written for teachers and moms and the lazy psychologist.]

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Math and Sex

Last night, after church choir, I headed into town to visit with Michelle on her last day of vacation this week. I planned for a crazy night and therefore brought the aforementioned ACEE evalutation results with me to read. But there, in the kitchen, Matie [MAE-TEE] — that is her legal, given name — and her friend Molly had already claimed the table for their lending letters. You see, they’re canvassing financial support for the sex shop they hope to open in Albuquerque. Now, before you guys pass judgement — and I know you already have — Matie holds an advanced degree in social development and non-profits or something germane. And she happens to be pretty on top of her stuff. In our now more frequent exchanges, we discovered something bizarre. The general public treat us and our fields in identical ways.

I explained that the world is mathphobic. If I were to go to a bar, say, and someone asked me, “Oh, which school did you go to?” Harvard gets you the first strike. You can approach the question “Yeah, really? [I had an aunt who went there in the 60s, she…] What did you study there?” in a couple different ways. If I don’t want them to talk to me I can say math, but if I feel a little more sociable, I can answer science. Science is vague enough that it might mean biology and therefore be less threatening. Everyone has a biology, few people carry around their math. But you can only dodge the question for so long. No matter when you pitch it, it’s always strike three: math.

Math makes people uncomfortable. And most people have no idea what math is and an even worse conception about what mathematicians actually do. It isn’t easy [for some reason] for people to hear that math is really just like anything else, that anyone can do it, and that they’ve probably never done it themselves. Adding and substracting isn’t math. [It’s almost computer science.] People forget that the content is secondary. It’s the relations that exist within the content that’s important. That’s why when I draft my socially responsible, angry letters a classicist and a sociologist can read them and there’s a pretty good chance that they would’ve written something similiar. [Though I’m sure we’d argue the grammar until the cows come home.] The same style of argumentation you use to write a paper on phonology is the same you use when discussing Engels dialectic approach is the same you use to investigate spin cobordism. The words look different. The language looks different. But the processes that govern them all, they’re the same. [Probably not, but close enough.]

But to overcome the discomfort I and my math present, people always share with me these impromptu anecdotes to justify or demonstrate or something, I’m not especially sure, maybe just to connect however awkward a connection it may be with math and therefore with me. “I was really good at math in high school, until calculus;” or “it’s not my thing. I can’t even add at the grocery store;” or, “I had this teacher and he was really good at explaining math. I really wish I stuck with it.”

It turns out that Matie gets the same response:

  • Sex [Math] makes people uncomfortable.
  • Most people are uneducated about sex [math] and get the issue confused, perhaps, to the detriment of themselves and those who do sex [math].
  • People offer unsolicitated, personal disclosures about sex [math] to those who profess to know anything about the subject.

We need to do something about the current state of affairs, even if it does make for some hilarious chit-chat.

“No, sir, I don’t want to know about what you do with your wife or your ‘really great’ high school math teacher.”

Cindy Crawford and the Emergency Room

Disclaimer #1: If you are my mom, either do not read this entry or read it in its entirety before calling me. Once you have done that, read it again. And if, after you have read it three times, you still think that someone is sick, in danger, pregnant, or dead, do not call. Everyone is fine. Actually, my foot is a little sore from volleyball. But that’s exactly what I’d tell you on the phone.

Disclaimer #2: DJ, like many of my friends, is a hypochondriac. Once he went to the ER because he was cold — he only had mild hypothermia; because his stomach hurt — his spleen had ruptured and the refuse which circulated his body put him in severe danger of dying, but we got him an ambulance. I don’t see why he refused to walk back to the house so we could call for one; because his it hurt to walk — he had strained his groin, but you can only really walk something like that off. Anyway, you shouldn’t ever take his ailments seriously. I, myself, probably suffer from chronically recurring meningitis, but do you see me rushing to a hospital for “treatment”? No, no you don’t.

Last night, after my first five games of volleyball in about six years courtesy of an adult pick-up nearby, DJ decided that it had gone on long enough: the fever, stiff neck, and headache which had localized in the base of his skull had played enough on his psychology that it was time to go to the hospital. I consulted with my doctor friends Emily and Laura before finally acquiescing to DJ and his symptoms.

He had spent the last five days as his own personal disease detective and, and in accord with various Yahoo searches, he now was convinced that he had meningitis. That didn’t stop him from going to community volleyball. At least he’d be infecting a neighbouring town.

Despite my doctors’ unofficial, unaminous advice to sleep it off and go to the clinic in the morning, DJ insisted we go to the emergency room — but not before he showered, nor before I ran home to fetch a math and notebook for the wait. We almost got suckered into one of those science documentaries about nuclear explosions and government secrets that continously play on the Discovery and History Channels at night, but we forged on: first, to one hospital which DJ deemed “too full” upon a drive-by; next, to the hospital he always goes to, always.

His registration sounded pathetic. Symptoms? “Well, I’ve had a headache for a really long time. About five days, and it’s in the back of my head.” The paraprofessional was unimpressed. But we were just warming up for the triage nurse. She was pretty convinced that DJ did, in fact, have a headache. She ran into the back, mixed up a few pills in a small plastic cup suitable for dipping sauce and brought them back with a cup of water. “Take these,” she said, following with, “On a scale of one to ten, with ten indicating the worst pain imaginable and one representing no pain at all, how do you feel?”

There was a chart in front of me taped to the table with just such a chart. It ran smiley faces to crying faces from left to right. The end with the pained faces had curled up, obscuring the most truly pained face. Good thing, too. It was sad, full with a frown and one black tear rolling down from each eye. It’d be more painful, I think, if the face were missing one or both eyes. I kept my thoughts to myself. Tonight was DJ’s night and it his turn to talk — not mine. He thought about the question. The pause made his reply seem all the more ridiculous.

“Well, I guess a two. No, maybe a three. A two or a three,” he decided at last. “What did I take, anyway?”

“Motrin and some advil.” It was official: DJ did have a headache.

The waiting room was separted naturally into two parts by an entrance in the middle and matching built-in shelving units for the TVs and magazines which flanked dividing wall and faced outwardly on opposite sides. DJ and I, being anti-social unless we have to be or are drunk, sat in the smaller, though perhaps slightly more crowded section furthest from the registration desk. In the corner a man and woman sat in chairs. The woman had brought a tan blanket and presently covered herself with it. The man had already removed his shoes. I caught up on my math. But something inside of me felt empty. It was my stomach. After some discussion, I ran to the adjacent town with a mission: I would retrieve four junior bacon cheeseburgers, a staple on the Wendy’s 99� menu and substitute for McDonald’s double cheeseburger from their dollar menu.

When I returned, triumphant, I called DJ from the parking lot. I left the engine running, but shut off the exterior lights and played Cool, a song from West Side Story and made famous more recently by a GAP ad. I also like to play it at night when I feel like following a random car to its destination. It’s my all-purpose, night-time, stake-out music. DJ found the car and passed on some very interesting news.

“You know that couple in the corner next to us? They’re not even sick. The security guard came over to them and said, `Come on, guys. You can stay here tonight, but you can’t come back tomorrow. You were here last night, too. And I could lose my job.'”

“So they’re homeless?”

“Yeah. Don’t do crack.”

“Pass me my other burger.”

We finished our midnight snack and rejoined those whom we now knew to be crackheads. Suddenly it made sense. The woman kept repeating long, full sentences that DJ and I had said to each other or had directed at the TV but not to her. All the while she laughed and rocked. But by this time we were all friends and thoroughly enjoying an episode of Sibling Fear Factor together. Her laugh was deep and purposeless. Many of her teeth had fled her mouth, leaving two fragmented rows — one top, one bottom, both displayed prominently in the front. By now she had turned on her side, her head on the neighboring seat, her feet flung on the floor behind her in an awkward cross.

Shortly after Fear Factor ended — the pair of obnoxious brothers who had won all of the contests leading to the end lost due to a freak, technical failure of equipment. Steroids don’t help you breath underwater. — a nurse called DJ’s name and I was alone to further math. Someone wanted to put on the Colbert Report. The woman writhed to one in particular, “What’s that, sugar? Oh, put it on, I’ll tell you if I like it.” Then, without any prompt and again to nobody she started, “Oh, I know what you’re talking about now. You mean Benny Hill? I love Benny Hill.” The man, who had not until now said a single word, broke his silence. “I like Benny Hill,” he shared.

Alas, the hospital didn’t subscribe to those fancy pay channels. We would watch, instead, an infomercial advertising for the Bombardier Outlander 800. A man sat down next to me. He reeked of cheap booze. I continued my math. He watched what I wrote. I felt uncomfortable. The other waiting area had cleared out, and the TV over there was playing Leno. It was time to move.

I fell asleep but my rest was short-lived. A woman whose name was Meghan woke me up with her phone conversation. She had come in because she “had an anxiety attack.” Someone named Craig hadn’t picked up when she called him earlier in the night. But now, at 3am, he was all ears. Meghan told Craig, and me by means of my proximity and her flagrant disregard for others, that she simply “couldn’t sleep.” And “Yes, [she] drove [herself] to the hospital,” and “if it takes too long [she would] go home to bed.”

Cindy Crawford followed Leno. The ad for her Meaningful Beauty skin treatment system lulled me back to sleep. By 4am, Conan was on again. Meghan had left and both the crackheads were comfortably asleep. A staff attendent asked me if I had been helped and who I was with. On rerun, Martha Stewart and Conan made an Irish breakfast for St. Patrick’s Day; Macaulay Culkin peddled his newly published collection of semi-autobiographical short stories, essays, and sketches. The interview was so painful, I got up and paced to distract myself. Macaulay admitted to being a closeted Save By the Bell fan. I wanted to die.

Then DJ emerged. We had been at the hospital nearly six hours. A nurse told us that the average wating time for a doctor was four hours. We brought down the mean. And what had happened to him in there? No spinal tap, no CAT scan — he had had a test sent to the lab, though. It came back negative. The doctor thought that DJ probably had meningitis, but since it was on the downswing, no immediate action was necessary. He did write a prescription for vicodin. The instructions read as follows:

Onetab p[backwards c]q6h per PAIN.\\\\#10 (ten)

Something about it seemed too easy. I asked if DJ had used codewords to ask for drugs.

“Look, doctor, I’m looking to develop a casual drug addiction. I don’t want nothing too dangerous. I saw them crackheads in the waiting room. Now, I’ve got this headache, what do you say to that, eh? What’ll you give me? It’s real bad and I need some medication.”

I said that he got jipped and should’ve waited until he upped it to some oxycontin and a morphine drip.

On Relationships

Michelle recently asked whether she ought to enter into a platonic relationship with someone whom she had had a rather “complicated” previous non-relationship. I answered, “Platonicity is about as real as my hispanicity.”

To which she said, “A quarter, genetically.”

One. Two. Three. Super Destructo!

As promised, here are the rules to the Energy Game. While it looks complicated, it’s not. The entire time keep Rock, Paper, Scissors in mind and things will work out just fine.

This is a two-person, multi-round game. During each round you can perform one move. Rounds are separted by the chant “One. Two. Three.” Each player chants before declaring his move while bumping both hands in a fist as you might during Rock, Paper, Scissors. Each move has an associated hand gesture. To complete a move, a player must vocally declare hsi move and execute the associated hand gesture to signify his move. The following is an example of what one player might say for two rounds’ worth of moves:

One. Two. Three. Energy! (first round.)
One. Two. Three. Block! (second round.)

Offensive Moves
There are three types of offensive moves. They are Punch, Double-punch, and Super Destructo. Each offensive move costs points from your energy bank (to be discussed below).

A single Punch costs one energy point; a Double-punch, two; and Super Destructo, three. A Punch beats Energy. A Double-punch beats a single Punch. Super Destructo, being an unblockable, defeats everything (including block).

The corresponding hand gestures are:
Punch, one fist forward,
Double-punch, two fists forward,
Super Destructo, lasso motion over the player’s head.

Defensive Moves
The only defensive move in the game is called Block. When calling Block, a player must form a cross with his arms. A Block successfully counters a Punch or Double Punch. It had no effect on Energy. A Super Destructo beats a Block. A player may block at any time. It neither costs or gains the player Energy.

In order to play any of the offensive moves, a player must first have the requisite amount of Energy in his Energy Bank. To place a unit of Energy in the Energy Bank, a player must call Energy! as his move. Be wary, however, as this is the only time when a player is vulnerable to a normal attack. To play Energy, a player calls out Energy! accompanied with a single double-fist hand pump.

Example Game 1
One. Two. Three. (1) Energy! (2) Energy!
One. Two. Three. (1) Energy! (2) Punch!
Player Two wins.

Example Game 1
One. Two. Three. (1) Energy! (2) Energy!
One. Two. Three. (1) Energy! (2) Block!
One. Two. Three. (1) Punch! &nbsp(2) Block!
One. Two. Three. (1) Punch! &nbsp(2) Energy!
Player One wins.

I hope this adequately explains the Energy Game. Go out and play it now! It’s a great energizer, spectator sport, ice breaker, and parent. Do it up, yo.