Curing kids of the notion that they suck at science

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I teach kids about science by electrifying books – they learn how to experimentally test for repeatability and they also learn about pain receptors and Pavlovian response. I do love teaching my little Deltas about science.


New instructional approaches need to be pilot tested in small groups and their efficacy needs to be assessed by objective 3rd parties using valid instruments. They seldom are. There are no data offered here either.

The goal of this program is to

It’s interesting that the goal is not improving learning outcomes and mastery of skills and concepts. Let’s cure kids of the notion that they suck by making sure they don’t.


That. The right dose of success for the right dose of effort. And lots and lots of successes (and failures, enough to learn from but not enough to discourage too much).


I don’t disagree that children can develop a deliberate attitude of helplessness when it comes to maths and science. But I also believe that cheap shots at our education system are easy to take. Out two kids (12 and 14) are very well taught using a (mostly) excellent curriculum and teaching methodology (at least compared to my high-school education).

To use such langauage as “one size fits all” is to ignore the degree to which indiviual needs are indeed met in the majority of cases. Can it be improved? Sure - but don’t make it out to be a lost cause that only a commercial education resource provider can fix. It’s far from that in my observation.


No, I need to hold my post at least until I finally pay down the house. And that is survival of the williest for you kid.

I´m neither a kid now (nor a squid now), but I´d appreciate if someone could cure me of the notion that I suck at math. It´d be kind of urgent since I had the brilliant idea to start studying robotics engineering last fall.

Okay, I will speak heresy here. As a (now former) math teacher, I found that many students did suck at math. I’m not talking about their scores on math tests or their ability to perform arithmetic operations. I’m talking about their ability to conceptualize quantity as a number and grasp what, exactly, mathematics is actually about – i.e., as a language for building models of the universe. Even the most basic models like money or counting sticks or etc. were baffling to them. They are the ones who would have flunked out of Montessori because they would have been eating crayons rather than playing with the counting blocks, because playing with the counting blocks simply wasn’t how their head was put together.

I taught untracked high school mathematics classes in poor school districts. Some of the kids were high performers, roughly 20% of them. They really didn’t need me there except to point them at which pages to read in the text and which problems to do. Another 60% were kids who needed to be actively taught to learn the material. I used a modified direct instruction curriculum with them that focused on both concepts and mechanics, to the point where one of those students actually performed decently at the state math contest (which concentrated as much on concepts as mechanics). Many of these kids came in with poor math skills, but the way I structured the instruction meant that didn’t matter, they ended up performing well. And 20% of the kids… they just didn’t “get” math. Not at all. They just did not have the mental models. I could get them to drill and kill some basic arithmetic, but they couldn’t fathom what that actually meant. Anything more was just completely beyond them, because once you start talking algebra, you’re talking about abstract models – and they didn’t even have the physical models, nevermind the abstract ones.

We’re all bright and intelligent people here, so probably half of us are in the 20% who just “got it” without much teacher help, and the other half are in the top part of that 60%. So it’s hard for us to comprehend that there exist 20% whose heads simply aren’t put together right to think mathematically. But they exist, and claiming that every single student can excel in math won’t make them away, it will just make us delusional elitists like the ones who demanded we teach Algebra to every 9th grader in our state – including kids in that 20% who had about as much chance of learning Algebra as they had of learning quantum physics. Which is why that state had a 20% real dropout rate (which they cleverly hid with many statistical manipulations, but that is a story for another day).


We burn heretics around here, weren’t you warned? Get the torches, boys!

When I worked in accounting, I can remember many clients telling me, “I’m no good at math.” Oddly, almost no math is required. If your taxes are very complex, there might be one division problem, but otherwise it’s just adding and subtracting. The hard part is the legal concepts, not the math, and that’s a very different kind of learning.

Back on-topic, I can’t recall ever hearing anybody say they were bad at science. I don’t think it’s nearly as intimidating as math - you can color the pictures of the planets, and plant the little seeds in the styrofoam cup, with no math at all.


When I went to grade school, I was not taught either science or mathematics.
Instead, in the case of science, I was taught an unrelated collection of facts
and alleged facts. Mathematics consisted of memorizing the addition and
multiplication tables and various algorithms for manipulating meaningless
numbers, so that I could add ten-high columns of five-digit numbers over and
over again. To be good at either subject, it was best to have a retentive
memory and otherwise be sort of mindless. Certainly nothing about the
scientific method or the history of mathematics and its concepts was ever
taught. I finally tuned into these fascinating fields of study not through
school but because of literature and philosophy – I read a lot and pretty
indiscriminately, and there is a lot of science and mathematics in the
background. If I hadn’t been a big reader I would still find them
pretty opaque. I wonder what’s going on in the schools today…


Perhaps if there were enough teachers who were as thoughtful and attentive as you the ones who didn’t get it could have been helped earlier on. It might be overly optimistic of me to think that a substantial portion of that 20% could have benefited from help earlier in their education, but maybe they missed something at a crucial point.

It might even be shaded by my own experience. I think I’m somewhere in that 60%, but in high school started off with a teacher determined to treat the entire class like the upper 20%. If we failed it was our fault and he certainly wasn’t going to waste time on individual students when he had more important personal pursuits. When I switched to a more hands-on teacher it made all the difference in the world, and I was able to accomplish a fair amount on my own.

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Could the class get coached to form a help-each-other structure where the ones who know teach the others? It also helps themselves to remember/understand better, and it utilizes the resources on hand without needing any from the outside.

I remember in 8th grade being stuck in some health camp and ending up as teaching math and chemistry in their little one-class school as they were one teacher short. (Oops.)

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Unfortunately, being awesome at math and feeling awesome at math require basically opposite approaches in terms of both doing hard problems and spending time around people who are much more experienced than you are

Neverrmind that by the time you actually get to a real scientific curriculum in college, it actually is hard, and a great many students who had done just fine up to this point find out that they suck at it, after all…

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This reads like an advertisement taken straight from the company’s literature with no fact-checking. “…Ulrik, describing what the company is calling computer-assisted adaptive
learning, a sort of A.I. virtual teacher and coach that meticulously
analyzes how each student learns and then breaks apart and alters the
course material to match the kind of brain that person has, delivering
it in bits and pieces that slowly build up to a holistic understanding
of the material.”

It’s going to match “the kind of brain that person has.” What does that even mean? Yet it’s presented uncritically on a usually-intelligent premier tech blog. As someone who teaches math, I am appalled. Pretty soon learning from a well-trained caring human teacher is going to be a rarity. Many math teachers/lecturers will have lost their jobs. And we won’t know that the system is worse than traditional face-to-face teaching because those experiments won’t be run. Not unless people actually question this bs and press for actual data.

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My personal experience with math and physics in school was horrible. I really don´t think the deeply fascinating concepts of math as a universal language or physics as a way of explaining nature in ever more universal terms, as well as the connection between the two would have been that hard to grasp for me. Alas, we were never told a word about them. To me, math was just a torturing device completely disconnected from anything a sane person would need in real life. Physics was rote memorization of formulas without any understanding what they meant and how they came to be. The first time I ever heard about quantum physics in any meaningful way was when I read Brian Greene´s “Fabric of the Cosmos”, years after my high school graduation and I was so fascinated by that book I could barely put it down (although I could have done without the “Simpsons”-based analogies for physical phenomena).

After what had been “taught” to me in school, it took me over ten years to discover that I was actually interested in all those technical subjects that used to be the stuff of nightmares. I even started studying at a technical university recently, but those are over ten years I´ll never get back.

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