More on math and perfectionism

Combating perfectionism and its sequelae is an ongoing battle at houses with gifted youngsters.  It is hard to provide continual challenges for smart kids that allow for failure but also allow for recovery from said failure.  When life gets too easy, failures seem to become that much more devastating when they do occur.

I really like math.  And math is nice because it comes in different levels which can provide different kinds of challenges and generally there’s going to be a solution.

We really enjoyed the workbook, Hard math for elementary students, though when I say “enjoyed” it was kind of a love-hate relationship for DC1.  There were sometimes tears.  But in the end, zie always triumphed, and that was exciting for DC1 and created true pride (though an odd consequence was that when DC1 cranked through a page easily, zie decided that page was too easy!).  It truly was a hard math book.  We were thinking of going through it again, but DC1 hasn’t wanted to.  Since DC1 just got into brain teasers and is spending hours on them on hir own, I ordered Aha and Gotcha and am going to let hir explore by hirself.

One of the really good parts of math for perfectionist people is that sometimes in order to get things right, you have to get them wrong a lot first.  There’s a method of solving things called “brute force” in which you just methodically try all of the possible answers to see which one(s) work.  You *have* to get things wrong.

The game Mastermind is another example of needing to get things wrong in order to find information that gets to the right answer.  You guess and then get feedback that helps you guess again until you narrow down the answer.  The game just isn’t that much fun if you guess right on the first try.  This game too initially caused tears in DC1, but coming back to it later it has been fun.

Finally, a fun (free, online) game recommended by school is fire boy and water girl.  This is another one where you learn about the world and have to try again and again in order to get the solution.  This one has never caused tears to my knowledge, though zie has stopped playing in frustration and come back later, which is totally valid.

It would definitely be nicer if there were never tears, but the pride that happens after figuring out something that previously seemed impossible might be worth it.

Do you have any suggestions for challenges, math or otherwise?

31 Responses to “More on math and perfectionism”

  1. Leah Says:

    Do you ever play logic games? Those helped me a lot as a kid. I have a series of books called “Mind Benders” that I even use today with students. My dad wouldn’t let us write in them, so we did all our work on scratch paper (both parents brought home good-on-one-side paper).

    Here’s some links:
    online mindbender questions, tho you may need to do with DC1 because there’s an answer button right there
    Mindbenders has books, also sold on Amazon. They look different in cover from what I had, but the templates and such seem to indicate that they’re the same

    Also, what about Encyclopedia Brown books?

    • Leah Says:

      oh, forgot to add that I suggest logic games too, such as the puzzle game Traffic Jam. We got that as a wedding present and have fun with it. You get cards that tell you how to set up the board, and you have to figure out how to get your car out of the jam by moving other cars. I think the cards tell you the ideal number of moves. Each card gets progressively harder. I plan on using this game (and a few others we have) with my little one when she’s old enough.

      Another one we have but haven’t yet opened is laser maze. You have pieces with mirrors on them and a laser, and you have to arrange the pieces to bounce the laser onto a certain target. Physics fun!

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        I got to see the guy who designed Traffic Jam give a talk when I was in college! (Perks of being a math major.)

      • Solitary Diner Says:

        I used to love Traffic Jam! I may need to hunt it down…

      • jlp Says:

        We are fans of both Traffic Jam and Laser Maze, (and we have versions of them on our iPad). For coding we like Lightbot and Cargobot, which are less narrative/more goal driven than, say, Scratch, but still have a friendly interface.

        Do your kids like the AoPS stuff? Both my kids love the Beast Academy books, and the workbook provides problems that truly require thought.

        We also play a LOT of (German or German-esque) board games around here, which provides plenty of opportunity for challenge and failure.

      • Leah Says:

        jlp, have you ever tried Robot Turtles? It’s a board game that supposedly teaches coding skills. We own it but haven’t used it yet. It’s geared for younger kids (4-10 or so?), but I snagged it when I saw it on shelves. I had seen the kickstarter, but I didn’t buy in, and I regretted it. Figured I’d buy it and save it for when my kid is older. Might be another idea for N&M to try. I got ours at Target.

      • jlp Says:

        (Hoping that this threads correctly…)

        We don’t have robot turtles, but it looks fun! Oh, and now I’m informed that our older child played and enjoyed it at hir week-long programming day camp last summer.

  2. Katherine Says:

    We ended up with The Electric Toilet Virgin Death Lottery at a white-elephant book exchange a few years ago, and it provided enough entertainment for a round-trip cross country drive. It is a hilarious and entertaining book of logic puzzles (the title puzzle ends up being about prime factorization). The frame is that you, the puzzle solver, are trying to foil the plans of an evil mastermind!

    The same authors, Thomas Byrne and Tom Cassidy, have also written How To Save the World with Salad Dressing: and Other Outrageous Science Problems and How to Win at Russian Roulette: And Other Fiendish Logic Problems, which I haven’t read but they look fun.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      From the amazon description it looks a little misogynist… is it?

      • Katherine Says:

        I read it as making fun of misogyny. I don’t know how other people would read it.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        How would a 9 year old read it is a big question.

      • Katherine Says:

        It probably depends a lot on the 9-year-old in question.

        Are there any Math circle type programs where you are? In my experience, those are often aimed at middle schoolers and vary a lot in quality, but the good ones tend to be focused on problem-solving outside the usual K12 curriculum and you might get lucky.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        We’re not actually actively in the market for more math stuff– DC1 is pretty much living and breathing it these days. Zie is doing the after school math program. We signed hir up for the park district program last semester (before we knew about the school program) but the class didn’t make so it was canceled.

        But I do have a soft spot for books of brain teasers.

  3. anandar Says:

    My friend who has a PhD in math education and is a generally awesome math teacher would say that the ideal challenge situation is to put people in math problem-solving situations that are open-ended, in which there isn’t necessarily a single right answer or it takes awhile to get there, so that kids understand the level of creativity that is involved with math as a discipline. He is also very big on multi-age math classes, which I can’t really imagine but trust that they have worked for him. Also, esp. for bright kids for who the basics come easily, it can be good to back off and give them a lot of independence/freedom when they do their math work, so they learn to take control of their own problem-solving experiences. This recent study is on point here: Although one reason for that result may be adults passing along math anxiety to kids, which I can’t imagine would apply to you.

    And a pitch: if you like Carol Dweck, you’ll love Jo Boaler! She is great (and my friend’s dissertation advisor) Her website is here:

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      The pendulum on feedback, especially for women and minorities, seems to be changing direction. It used to be thought that frequent feedback helped women and minorities. Now there are some studies showing it hurts women and minorities (had a long conversation with a graduate student last week at a conference about the topic). I think that means that there’s a lot of heterogeneity that needs to be explored more. Who knows what is really going on and what is the right thing to do.

      Personally I like feedback. But maybe verbal feedback isn’t the way to go. DC1 seems fine when Kahn Academy tells hir to try again, but may get a little more upset when mom or dad does.

      • anandar Says:

        I would certainly guess that the effect of feedback on women and minorities depends in part on how strong one’s internal (likely unconscious) negative stereotypes are, both for the teacher and the student. The tricky part of that is, from what I’ve been told about the science of unconscious bias, that letting teachers know about the problem sometimes makes it worse (i.e., stereotypes become MORE salient) rather than better, at least in the short term.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Yeah, it is tricky.

      • becca Says:

        I have a hunch verbal feedback after you complete a math problem is actually too slow for training rapid-computation stuff (video game feedback can work well though!).

        Effects of feedback are also super heavily dependent on the interpersonal dynamics involved. My kid can handle verbal critique from his Dad OR from me, but if we BOTH try to criticize the same thing at the same time he’s likely to burst into tears (which pretty much *never* happens under *any* other circumstance, including injury. My kid is so much more the toughstuff than I was…). Some people are exquisitely sensitive to the “I’m being critiqued by someone who ranks lower than me in front of someone who ranks higher than me” type things, and nearly everyone who is confident in their expertise is more comfortable with negative critique than they were when they were a novice (arguably, you can’t *become* a high level expert without seeking out lots of feedback, at least in some arenas).
        Overall, I *intensely* dislike when people take a puzzle away from me when I’m struggling. When I know I *need* that struggle to learn it, I get absolutely livid. When it’s not something important that I need to learn, but I’m applying myself intently, I still get pretty cranky (even stupid things like getting knots out of shoelaces!!!). I’ve always assumed this was my own personality quirk/defect, but if it’s found in some people but not everyone, it’d certainly complicate feedback studies.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Being able to deal with feedback is an important skill. Especially for bosses!

        It’s not just puzzles– also opening things or anything tricky in life. There’s always this temptation to grab it away from the person struggling and to not let go until one is well and truly ready to take a break. (Like you say, shoelaces.)

  4. chacha1 Says:

    I had too much of the “brute force” method as a kid and consequently I still don’t enjoy math and am only math-literate to the point required by daily life, so I can’t help you there. :-)

    BUT for reading/writing, I can say that the two most memorable assignments I was given (one in high school, one in college) were:
    1. write a new verse of the Canterbury Tales, in the same style (I wrote … several)
    2. write a conversation between John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, and the pope (which pope was not specified, and several overlapped the two intellectuals’ lives, so I threw in all the possible popes)

    I always enjoyed book reports and studied assiduously for spelling bees, but it was pure writing assignments that I really loved. I just read Mark Twain’s analysis (hilarious) of James Fenimore Cooper’s writing style and that is an assignment I wish someone had given me: rewrite a piece of (pick your turgid author) in plain language.

  5. crazy grad mama Says:

    Coding! Trial-and-error is a fundamental part of the process of writing code. “OK, I want to do this, and the first step is this… [writes a line] … Did that work? … [adds a print statement and reruns program] … Nope… What’s it doing wrong? [Googles help page for command] …”

  6. Jjiraffe Says:

    Agreed on coding. I have a perfectionist on my hands too, and am trying to encourage the philosophy that (gentle) mistakes lead to learning, building resiliency. Coding seems to encourage this – I think because you are motivated to keep going, so you can build something.

    Also – chess? For my child, chess has been a great way to encourage growth and resiliency via learning from wrong moves (literally).

    Thanks for the recommendations – will check those out.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Chess is talked about a lot in the Grit book. It is a good example of learning from wrong moves.

      The other day, I was talking to DH about whether or not we should put DC1 in public school when we get back home (6th grade middle school…eek!) and when I was asking what if everything went wrong, DH said, “then it will build character” which was funny because that is the constant refrain from my childhood. Every single setback was character building according to my mom. (“Mo-om, my character is buff enough already!”)

  7. nicoleandmaggie Says:

    #2 used to ride horses with a professor of math. The professor told me she spent at least 30% of her time doing math wrong.

  8. Cloud Says:

    My older daughter has decided she wants to be able to draw as well as a friend of hers, and watching that play out has been interesting. She seems to be fine with not being “the best” at something as long as it isn’t a direct competition and as long as she doesn’t think someone is teasing her for her shortcomings. I think feeling like she’s making progress and improving is important, too. I see something similar to how she does with gymnastics. What has been really interesting is seeing her take some of the ideas she’s developed about practicing and improving from these non-academic arenas and apply them to her academic work- mainly math, which she is good at understanding, but she is not fast at doing simple problems in her head under pressure. There are a couple of boys in her class who ARE good at the simple problems under pressure, and she feels like they tease her for not being as good at that. I’m not in the class, so I don’t know if an independent observer would think they’re teasing others, but she certainly feels teased. At least one of them is a real perfectionist himself, so there’s a really difficult dynamic going on there.

    I need to talk to her about the differences between good feedback and bad feedback, and how to seek out the former while ignoring the latter…. but I’m not super awesome at that myself, so I haven’t figured out what to tell her.

    But for her (and also, looking back, for me), the thing that seems to help most with academic perfectionism is having a non-academic interest or two that she’s given herself permission not to be great at. It is like those things give a chance to practice the skill of not instantly excelling.

  9. Anu Says:

    When I was a kid I devoured Raymond Smullyan’s logic puzzles, which are of the knights and knaves variety, but get much more complex than the usual problems you see. My favorites were What is the Name of this Book? (which I solved entirely) and Alice in Puzzleland. Somehow he manages to get all the way to Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem without losing his audience.

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