Ask the grumpies: Math-averse teen boy‏

Kingston asks:

Do you have any suggestions for motivating a math-averse 15-year-old boy? His interest in the subject and confidence in his skills are low. He avoids math and does only the barest minimum of work because it is a struggle; as a result, he is always just barely keeping up, or we’re in crisis as he’s failing. When he has been failing, I have taken him to a tutor, who kind of manages to drag him up to the necessary level, with great frustration on everyone’s part.

Any thoughts on how to help this adolescent see the beauty and utility of math? Do you think people who are not naturally gifted in math can be taught to be anything more than basically competent?

We are not a particularly math-y family (much more history-, literature- and arts-oriented) but our older son did pretty well and is not daunted by it. At times our older son loves it.

Maybe relevant: the math-averse guy does have an aptitude for athletics, foreign languages and for music, and is doing fine with fairly complex music theory. He does not like to read fiction or fantasy; in fact, he has little interest in reading anything at all, despite constant exposure since he was tiny. He does what he has to for school. No learning disabilities.

I would be grateful for any ideas.

It used to be that I would only get girls and women (of all ages) with this problem, but now I am getting more young men in my classes with this math aversion. I suspect this may have something to do with the changing dominance of academics from male-dominated to female-dominated, and that’s starting to bleed over even into mathematics. My advice will be the same for your son as it would be for your daughter.

Given that you have screened for learning disabilities in math, it is extremely unlikely that he (or anyone) is naturally not gifted in math.  The only cases in which I have not been able to bring someone up to speed in math is the occasional student we get who is a global learner and is trying to minor in our subject (generally with a major in fine arts– these folks want to run an arts-related business or manage a theater or museum when they get out).  These folks tend to think in clouds and cannot follow a list to save their souls.  When they get a math problem they just look at it and get the answer, but unless they are brilliant they get the answer wrong more often than not.  There probably is a way to teach them math, but I’m not set up to do that.  There are ways to teach people with dyscalculia all sorts of math (I know the tricks for arithmetic, but not later math).  A specialist can help there.

Instead, I suspect that there are two things going on.

The first is that your son is succumbing to second-child syndrome.  This happens a lot to the second children in bright families.   Given what you say about reading and other academics, it sounds like he has decided that your oldest is the “smart” one and he will be the “athletic/artistic” one.  Possibly he is also the “popular” one.  This isn’t about aptitude– this is about identity.  The way my family dealt with this with my (athletic and popular) little sister was to say that our family was academic.  So she could be a great catcher and a ballerina, but she also had to do well in school.  Our family works hard at academics and does well.  Period.

She had to be good at math because that is a gateway to a career (“keeping options open”).  Possibly a back-up career if dancing didn’t work out, but it is important to have such a back-up.  And yes, she did the minimum possible to get an A, but that’s a good skill too.  (She is now an engineer and makes tons of money.)  Another thing your oldest can do, but you should probably not do, is let your second know when he is struggling– I’m fairly sure my difficulties in physics helped spawn my sister’s love for the subject (don’t tell her I said that).

Regarding reading, my mom read a book about how to get your child to love reading, and as far as I can recall, the main change from that is that she stopped denigrating reading comics as not real reading and she signed my sister up for Seventeen magazine, something that would have been a heresy before.  The book helped her let go of the idea that there is acceptable and unacceptable reading, which allowed my little sister to read more.  Today she reads complicated literary books for her book-club.  (And I read lots of junk novels.  :)  )  Obviously Seventeen magazine will probably not be attractive to your son, but there must be magazines that fit his interest, or comic books or collections of Calvin and Hobbes.  Experiment.

The second thing going on is math phobia.  I generally see this when a student has missed out on some vital part of their math education.  Usually it is fractions (but not always).  Math builds on itself, and when you miss a basic building block, it is much more difficult to get through the entire structure.  (The “spiral” in most of the modern textbook series is supposed to take care of it, but it rarely does.)  It is possible your son lost out on one or more of these building blocks from inattention, but I generally blame it on a bad teacher, or maybe being sick and missing an important day of class.  And it only takes one bad teacher or extended absence to completely miss something important.  Not knowing that building block makes everything that comes after make less sense.

So what I generally do in these cases is explain that if you think you’re bad at math, you’re not.  You’re missing something important.  Math builds on itself.  If you had a bad teacher or missed school, you probably missed something important, like fractions.  (Generally the class makes noise at this point, “yeah.”)  If you can’t do fractions, you can’t do algebra, you can’t do algebra, the rest of math makes no sense.  Then later in office hours or in a review session, I identify where students have holes, starting at the very beginning with addition and subtraction, and I fill in those holes.  Teaching elementary arithmetic to college students doesn’t actually take very long, and once they can do something with numbers, it is an easy jump for them to do the same thing with variables.  But first you have to get at that fear.

So to sum up the steps:

1.  Change your son’s identity to one in which he belongs to a family of hard workers that don’t give up and *will* do well in math.  Use “We” a lot.  My mom would also use her last name, “Lastnames don’t give up, and you are half Lastname.”   Math is useful and important and you are not going out into the world without being able to do it.  (You may also want to read Mindset by Carol Dweck for tips on building a growth mindset.)

2.  Blame your son’s inability to do math on outside factors when he was younger.  (At some point did he stop being able to do math?  Third-Fifth grade?  Seventh or Eighth?)  Explain that there are holes in his understanding that have just made everything later difficult.  (Because in this family we can do math, and if we can’t we work on it until we can.)

3.  Diagnose and fill in those holes.  You can try to do this yourself, hire a tutor, use khanacademy or some combination.  Personally I’d give it a stab myself (or a co-parent if ze can be patient), at least for the elementary math part, to show your son that yes, the family does math (even if not for a career).  Singapore math (and other home-schooling math books) will often offer pretests that you can print out to test where someone is level-wise.  You can use these to also diagnose holes in understanding.  Tell him to be sure to show his work so you can see where he goes wrong.  Khan academy also offers pretests but they are all online.  If you do it, be sure to make it clear that this is for diagnostic purposes to see what he’s missing, and do not make him feel bad for getting something wrong– the point is to find that out.  If he gets everything right then you don’t know where to start.  Then he needs targeted lessons and practice in that part(s) he’s missing.  Again, you can do this yourself, hire a tutor, or use khanacademy.

Grumplings, do you have any suggestions for Kingston?

Asking help from professors who are not in your program: etiquette

Don’t call anyone by their first name until they invite you to do so.   It is “Professor X” or “Dr. X” until you’ve gotten an email signed with a first name only.  Yes, you have just gotten used to calling the professors at your own program by their first names, but guess what?  They invited you to.

Ask professors specific questions.  Do not ask them to “walk you through” how to do something.  Do not assume that just because they wrote or did something that they have no greater joy in life than walking you through said thing, especially when it is obvious you haven’t made an effort to understand it yourself first.  How do they know that you’ve made a good faith effort?  Ask specific questions!

Many professors cannot read anything longer than three lines.  Get to the point quickly.  If you are polite and clear, the professor may read more lines, but put them in a new paragraph.

Do not assume that just because you are a white male graduate student at a top program that your time is more important than that of a professor at a less than top program.  Said professor has a more impressive PhD than yours and you will no doubt end up someplace even less impressive if you graduate.  And even if that’s not the case, the professor still has her own important stuff to do.  None of it involves you.  Show some humility and respect her time.  She isn’t your RA.
Grumpeteers, what advice do you have for graduate students requesting help from professors outside of their program?

We like nuts

Love nuts!  The nuttiness of the almond, the bitter tannin giving way to the rich meat of the walnut, the sweetness of the pecan, the creaminess of the cashew.

I think my favorite nut is the hazelnut.  There’s just something special about that flavor.

I like them best roasted and lightly salted, though second best without salt.  I miss TJ’s half salted nuts– they had the right amount.  (#2 likes a lot of salt)

Male chocolate chip cookies are my favorite.

Sometimes I will add roasted salted nuts to the ice cream I’m eating.  Nom.

#1: What kind of nuts do you like?

#2: many kinds
cashews. pecans. walnuts. hazelnuts. pistachios. almonds.

#1: hm
I think you will have to add to the blog post yourself
too complicated for me!

#2: hee

#1: and I’m sure CPP will say that our tastes in nuts are plebeian

#2: hehe
I like almost all nuts I have ever tried.

#1: I’m actually not crazy about brazil nuts

#2: I will eat them in with other things

#1: I used to really like macadamia

#2: oooo I forgot those. Those are really good!

#1: and I think I still like small (hazelnut sized) macadamia chunks in double chocolate chunk cookies

#2: I like macadamia

#1: I like to say macadamia

#2: gazebo

#1: exactly

What is your favorite nut?

Having a little bit of economics is worse than having none at all

When it comes to policy.

P. J. O’Rourke on Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me just made a joke about how Obama needs to read an economics 101 textbook and apologize to Paul Ryan.

As a professional economist who knows and has personally met (and is known! by a subset of) economists who have advised the past FOUR presidents, I submit that Obama knows a hell of a lot more economics than Mr. P. J. O’Rourke does (who, admittedly also made jokes during today’s broadcast about how bad he is and has always been at math).

The problem is that a lot of folks take Econ 101, maybe Econ 102, which teach very basic theory and then they don’t take any field courses that deal with economics in *reality*.

In Econ 101, we have to keep things simple so that people can get the basics down.  How do supply and demand work?  What does thinking at the margin mean?  What are sunk costs?  How do interest rates work?  What is GDP?  And so on.   These are really complicated and deep ways of changing the way most of us think.

In order to make these concepts as simple as possible, we have to make a whole lot of simplifying assumptions.  We assume that markets always work– there is no market failure.  (Advanced classes may get to externalities by the end of the semester, but that’s generally the only source of market failure that they get to.)  They assume that the world is in perfect competition (and again, more advanced courses may get to monopoly power by the end of the semester, but many do not).   We assume that markets have full information and that all (identical) people are able to make rational decisions that involve complicated math problems instantaneously and in their heads.  When we make all of these simplifying assumptions and do the math, it seems very obvious that we shouldn’t have government at all except to enforce contracts and property rights.

It is true, a few PhD economists are still stuck on these theoretical dreams.  For example, Gary Becker’s work *proves* that taste-based discrimination cannot exist in theory… given the assumption of perfect competition and that we are in general equilibrium.  And if we had perfect competition, then of course nobody would discriminate against blacks or women.  Therefore if we see any differences it must be because blacks are inferior (he allows that that might be because of pre-labor market conditions like bad schools) and women should stay at home and support their husbands.  [Note:  he is wrong.  The perfect competition assumption does not hold, so owners can take some of their oligopoly rents as tastes for discrimination.]

Reality is, we live in a messy world of imperfect competition and there’s room for a lot of market failures whether we’re talking general equilibrium or partial equilibrium.  In addition to the basic problems of monopoly and externalities and partial equilibrium that are often covered in Econ 102, there’s a whole host of problems that lead directly to market failures.  There’s moral hazard, public goods problems, adverse selection, and sometimes paternalism (since most people who aren’t economists and even some who are aren’t the fully informed rational actors we assume they are in Econ 101).

All of these complications and all of these sources of market failure lead to the potential for government intervention.  Now, there are always costs to government intervention, and sometimes the costs outweigh the benefits or vice versa.  But suggesting from your very limited knowledge of economics that anyone who believes in any government intervention needs to read an Econ 101 textbook is ludicrous.  Instead, I submit that such folks need themselves to take and understand more economics.  They need to understand what happens when those simplifying assumptions we made in Econ 101 break down.  And they can use those tools that they learned in Econ 101 to get that understanding.

Until then, I submit that knowing a little econ is more dangerous than knowing none at all.  And I urge people who teach Econ 101 to add caveats when they’re doing this teaching and be very clear about the assumptions being made in order to get to the conclusions.  My 102 professor (a labor economist) was very good at doing that and those caveats awakened my thirst for further knowledge for when that world isn’t as perfect as it seems in that initial 101 class.  My sister couldn’t handle the unrealistic assumptions in 101 (stated as fact) and rejected the entire field– and perhaps that’s another way to go.  Personally I’m glad I stuck with it until I got to the more reality-based stuff.

And that’s my rant.  Any comments on when knowing a little of something is more dangerous than just using your common sense?

A somewhat late link love

Whooops!

Hm, seems like feminism is in the air this week.  (And Scalzi, you are allowed to be called a feminist on our blog.)

From Cupid is Burning, a woman-human translator that anyone can use.

Geeky Mom reminds us that pronouns do matter.

Glacial Distance explains what telling women (but not men) they’d make great teachers really means.

A couple of The Onion posts.  War on string.  Oh man, the hilarity.

Personal Finance drama we missed.  (Not the part about qunioa or chili powder– scroll down.)

#2 notes that they’re doing a search for an outside chair for her [specific social science] department but don’t have anyone qualified applying.  So far even this totally unqualified MD is looking like one of the better candidates.  #1 and #2 ponder which restriction should be relaxed.

#2: in our ongoing external search for a new chair, we are @$#!ed. We don’t have enough applicants and none of them are any good. We’re boned.
#1 you’d think there’d be someone wanting to move to [middle of nowhere] for a department that needs an external chair  oh wait
#2: yes, someone whose mortgage is not underwater, who doesn’t mind pulling their kids out of school, whose spouse can also live with [middle of nowhere] on less than the market rate. OH WAIT.  someone with at least a little administrative experience, who is actually a [specific social scientist]….
#1:  Sounds like one of those pick 2 out of 3 situations.  maybe you can relax the admin experience (since you can’t move the university and pay more)
#2:  oh, we’re gonna
no doubt about it
we’re gonna hire someone who’s never been in charge of anything, or else we’re gonna hire no one at all
we have an MD interested….
#1: if you opened it up to English PhDs I bet you could get someone excellent
or History… I’m just sayin’, don’t settle for the MD
not sure what class an English prof could teach, maybe [that class you hate teaching] :)
#2: the problem with history and english is that they’re not scientists. We’re looking for someone who can mentor junior faculty about SCIENCE. (hahahahahahaha)
#1: I bet you could get a good [other kind of social scientist]
the market for them is worse than the market for [#2’s social science]
#2: [redacted slur on that type of social science]
#1:  [suggestion for other kind of social scientist]
#2: [suggestion]’s a possibility
#1:   You could get a linguist.  I hear someone has to die to open up a job for a linguist.
#2: that would be cool
#1: We should post on the blog:
Do you know any linguists who would like to chair a social science department that isn’t linguistics?

Finally, if you’re a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movie fan, here’s a hilarious Carol Burnett clip.  Especially check out Roddy McDowell(?) as Edward Everett Horton.

Digest these Google questions and answers

Q:  why do people tell others how to spend their money

A:  if you would shut up about how broke you are all the time, they would probably stop

Q:  is it possible to pay the student loan amount in 2 years vene teh tenure is 5 years

A:  Yes, if you have enough money.

Q:  if you quit your job are you able to get the companys portion of the pension funds if you are grandfathered in

A:  If you are vested.

Q:  boys things they should do by 8

A:  Same as girls with one exception:  pee standing up.

Q:  do you make your kids go on family excursions if they dont want to do

A:  Yes.  We’re not paying for a baby sitter.

Q:  how to motivate gifted perfectionist child to swim

A:  Well, swimming is one of those life skills, so our gifted perfectionist child did not have a choice.  However, we did explain a LOT about the growth mindset and practice and how it’s important to learn to be able to do things you can’t do.  Swimming was really great because it’s one of those things where persistence and practice do pay off… DC1 couldn’t swim at all, then DC1 could swim, then DC1 could swim better.  So, in short:  You have to learn to swim because it is dangerous not to be able to.  Nobody starts out knowing how to swim and it’s going to take a long time to learn.  You have to practice or you will never be able to swim.  You have to practice putting your head in the water.  Let’s practice together so next time you’ll be able to do it for the teacher.  Let’s let someone else teach you as well.

Q:  does anybody sell energy efficient drapes less than 84 inches

A:  Yes.  There are a ton of places you can get custom made drapes, but they may cost more.

Q:  how to trick yourself into thinking youre not sick

A:  Drugs.

Q:  what do faculty at community colleges do during the summer

A:  Depends on the faculty.  Some teach summer courses.  Some do not get paid.

Q:  can people learn something they don’t like

A:  Yes.

Fred: Ghost or gremlin? And an origin story.

Back in the days of our youth, #1 and #2 were roommates.  We were lucky to have relatively spacious dorms, with one bathroom per room.  (The only downside?  We had to clean it ourselves.)

Our toilet randomly flushed itself.  We decided that our toilet was possessed by a ghost, and we named him Fred.  The next year there were toilet clogs and light flickers.

Fred followed #2 to college and was finally exorcised by a friend who dabbled in things Wicca (and new-age).  He would show up occasionally in graduate school (at which point #2 started thinking Fred might be a gremlin rather than a ghost), mainly sticking to plumbing and electrical things.  He will often do both at the same time but thankfully has not as of yet had the chance to mix the two.  (We like being, you know, alive.)

Now Fred’s back to make #2’s day a difficult one…

No work today.  We have a severe Fred infestation.   My laptop, desktop, and external hard drive are all dead.  My laptop no longer boots and started smoking while not booting.  My desktop has been reformatted because it keeps restarting and getting the video card replaced didn’t fix it.  And my external harddrive has bad sectors and has been getting “i/o errors” which I understand is a bad thing.  Partner’s laptop has this stupid red dot thing; where is my external mouse?  The internet at work keeps turning on and off.  Also all of our sinks have been leaking and partner broke a pipe trying to fix one.  And two of our toilets are randomly refilling.  It will be a while before either of us will be able to wait for a plumber.

#1 had a good day though.  I just got word that I have passed another level in my tenure process!

#2: maybe Fred is sticking with me to bring you luck
in which case, I will take that temporary sacrifice

#1: I really appreciate your taking one for the team.

Hope your Thanksgiving holidays are Fred-free, dear grumplings!

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