Friday, February 21, 2014

You're So Smart

I hated it, as a teen, when adults said to me, “You’re so smart,” when what they meant was, “I didn’t expect you to know that,” or “Why did you memorize that?”  

I felt that they didn’t value what I valued.  Smart has nothing to do with it. If I’ve had a teacher who taught me something unusual, that is not a reflection on me.  And my ability to memorize has nothing to do with being smart.

To me, “smart” means figuring something out.  And when I do figure something out, I’d much rather see the results of my work and maybe receive a “thank you” if my solution helped somebody, than have somebody call mesmart.”  If I fix something, I’m not trying to show off my brains.  I’m just trying to make something work.

So, when my exchange student told me that one of her teachers told her “You’re so smart” because she’d already studied the current biology lesson in Kazakhstan, where she grew up, I became angry on my student’s behalf.

My student wasn’t angry.  She is a good student.  She accepts “smart” as one of her labels. Instead she gave me a lecture on how she thinks education in the United States is poor quality. She thinks her education is deep and details while US education is shallow and general.

I asked for examples.  All the examples she gave me were things she has memorized. She is unfamiliar with hands-on experiments and persisting with variations until a problem is solved.

At one point she asked me what is a hedgehog.  She was sitting in front of her computer which is hooked up to the internet. But she asked me.   So, I gave her an answer. She didn’t seem to think my description was clear enough, so I told her she could type “hedgehog” into her search engine and have a picture and a wikipedia page up in seconds.  This had not occurred to her and did not seem to appeal to her.

At dinner, I showed her how to balance a two forks on a toothpick on the edge of a glass.  She tried a few times and it wouldn’t balance.  I showed her again.  She said, “You’re so active.”  And then, “I’m tired and I have to study for a test.”  She didn’t want to master this new skill.

The next day,  I got out my flip top that turns upside down when you spin it. I didn’t tell her what would happen. I just showed her the top and suggested she spin it.  She asked, “What is supposed to happen?”  I told her to watch and find out.  She saw it turn upside down.  Then she insisted that rubber erasers do this is Kazakhstan.  I have never seen a Kazakhstan eraser. I just consider it unlikely.

After dinner, I made a mobius strip and had her draw a line down the middle until it met where she began.  She noticed that she had to draw for a long time.  I tried to discuss with her how many sides she thought the mobius strip had.  She wasn’t interested.  I made a regular loop of paper and had her draw a line down the middle until it met where she started.  She noticed it was shorter.  I had her look at “both sides” of the paper. Did she see a line on both sides?  No.  But did she see a line on what looks like “both sides” of the mobius strip?  Yes.  But she still wasn’t surprised by this unusual event.  

So, I had her cut the regular loop in half.  She saw that she got two identical loops.  Then I had her cut the mobius strip in half.  She saw that she got one big loop.  Again, she was not surprised or startled.  I had her draw a line down the middle the new bigger loop until it met where she started. At this point she said, “I’ll be drawing forever.” I assured her she would meet her starting point.  She did so.  I asked her to look if the line was on “both sides.”  It was only on one side.

I tried to have the conversation about what was different here.  She was bored.

I asked her to try one more thing.  Cut a mobius strip 1/3 of the way from the edge.  She got all the way around, saw that the cut was not going to meet her starting place, so she cut across the strip to make it meet.

At this point, I was frustrated.  So, I made another mobius strip and I cut 1/3 from the edge.  I showed her how I kept cutting even though the lines didn’t meet.

When I was done, I had one big loop and one mobius strip, looped together.  She said, “This is how I decorated Christmas trees as a child, but I forgot.”   Since, I know that paper chain decorations for Christmas trees have more than two loops, and I know that the loops are all about the same size, I think she truly forgot.

In my mind, there is something seriously wrong with an education system that doesn’t recognize surprise.

I guess I have to start the way I do with a 4-year-old. “ What do you think will happen?”  “Now, let’s try it.” And checking to see if the results match expectations. If not, what happened?  Why?

But she is so used to being RIGHT and getting good grades this might frustrate her.  When you do experiments, things often turn out differently from expected.  She gets “tired” quickly when I set up surprises for her.  The only surprise she has liked so far was doing chromatography with rubbing alcohol, a coffee filter, and a black marking pen to reveal the colors of ink hidden in the black.

She is not used to doing experiments.  She is not used to discrepant events.  She is only used to memorizing.  And she thinks her education system is better.

This is a huge culture gap.  But it has nothing to do with smartness.

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