Rich Dlin – Reader Beware

Husband, Father, Math Teacher, Weightlifter

Archive for the category “Teaching”

Phone Addiction is NOT Okay

Hi. My name is Rich and I am an addict.

iphone.jpgOk. I know that’s been borrowed from AA protocol countless times. Often in jest when not in the context of an actual meeting. But I’m not joking – I am an addict. I have had a few addictions in my life, thankfully not any of the big nasty ones like alcohol or drugs, but some of the ones I’ve had have had negative impact, for certain. The two most prominent are food and smartphones.

I am going to talk a little about the food addiction later in this article. But I mainly want to talk about the subtle and not-so-subtle evils that my phone addiction has wrought. The first is an obvious one, and it has been discussed to death. Still, it needs addressing:

Phone Addiction Steals You From The World

There are way too many times I have belatedly realized that my son, daughter, wife or close friend made an attempt to communicate with me while I was using my phone. And after they realize it’s like talking to a projection, they give up. The worst part is they seem to just accept it – that they are not going to win my attention over whatever clever post I am reading or writing, or whatever video about people hurting themselves doing stupid things I am watching, or whatever likes I am counting. What’s worse is that so many of those times they were the ones who had my attention first, but during a brief lull in our interaction I pulled out my phone to investigate a notification and was subsequently checked out. Most heart-wrenching is that it is out of respect for me that they give up and don’t try to interrupt my phone time. Clearly I don’t need to go further on the evil of this aspect. The next few are a little more subtle, but insidious.

Smartphone Addiction Erodes Your Ability to Focus

MMT TranscriptHumility aside, my concentration and focus used to be legendary. I could get lost in a process, with intense focus for hours on end. So much so that I would forget to eat or even go to the washroom, until the need for one or both of those became impossible to ignore and I would look at the clock and be shocked at the time. And the things I could do during that time were amazing. It’s how I got through my Masters degree with a GPA of 97%, for example (that and major support from my awesome wife and kids). Lately, my concentration sucks. I find myself looking for distraction only minutes after beginning something. At first, when I noticed this, I blamed my age. It’s no secret that aging can have an impact on brain function. But the truth is I am 48, and there are plenty of people older – even much older – than me who can concentrate on a task for a long period of time with no trouble. On a smartphone, nothing needs concentration, and everything is provided in quick bites. You flit from item to item like a politician moving through a political rally, shaking hands with everyone and meeting nobody. And you can tell yourself that this is behaviour limited to your phone time, but what you miss is that your brain is a learning machine, and it’s learning a behaviour. Your brain wires itself to adapt to your environment, even if that environment is the manufactured barrage of inanity you kill time with on your phone.

Possibly worse, is that we tell ourselves that the phone is a harmless distraction, and we use it at the weirdest times. I’ve used it while watching TV, thinking that surely the TV doesn’t care so no harm done. But while the TV doesn’t care, my brain does. Watching a television show requires focus. Not the same level as calculus mind you – but focus nonetheless. There’s a story unfolding and if you miss something the subsequent bits make less sense. So you are missing an opportunity to focus. To practice what I tell my students is the single most lacking skill in the computer generation: uni-tasking. I have heard many a person brag about their ability to multi-task, which is great, I guess. But smartphones have stolen our ability to focus on one thing for a long time. We can no longer effectively uni-task.

Smartphone Addiction Encourages Mistakes

Yeah, this one took me a while to clue into. I’ve noticed over the past couple of years that I am making more mistakes at things that I should be able to do automatically. Frighteningly, I don’t even notice them when I make them – only once they are pointed out, or long after, do I notice. And when I do notice I have no memory of making the mistake.

Now I hear you say Wait! That’s just a symptom of aging!

Well, yes. It could be. But the thing is, there is a thought groove I find myself in when these things happen – like a road I know I’ve been on because the landmarks are familiar but I can’t quite place it. Then it hit me. Autocorrect. Autocorrect and predictive text. Both of these so-called innovations have made it so that we don’t even have to concentrate on the simple act of typing a text, email, or post. Just type close to what you want and autocorrect will fix it for you. Not always correctly, mind you, but often. So much so that when it gets it wrong we don’t even notice until later, making for some humorous/embarrassing messages getting sent. I actually hated this feature, and turned off autocorrect some time ago, but I kept the predictive text on. And it works so well that I often only have to type the first 1-3 letters of what I want and an entire phrase is suggested to me – correctly. So I select it and don’t check it. And sometimes, my iPhone does the old bait-and-switch on me so that the thing I think I’m selecting changes to something else just before I select it, and I don’t even notice and the wrong thing gets sent.

Like I said before, the brain is a learning machine. And my smartphone addiction has taught my brain that you only have to start a thought to have it completed automatically. And that is what has manifested into these increasingly frequent mistakes. It is NOT age. I can feel it when it happens. It is the same thought groove as typing on my phone.

At Least I Remember When It Wasn’t So

The scariest thought to me is that these things I describe are changes. As in, it wasn’t always so for me. I am actually frightened about the generations that don’t have a comparison to make to a different time. A generation that believes that being able to concentrate on one thing for a long time is an unusual, maybe even useless skill. Or that being able catch every joke in a sitcom is a freakish ability. Or that being able to spell a word correctly on purpose is a worthwhile ability. With respect to the issues I have outlined, I want to go back to the way I was. But for many younger people, this is the way they have always been. There is nothing to go back to.

Quitting May Not Be the Answer

So the fix would seem obvious, wouldn’t it? Just stop. But that’s not realistic, or even really desirable. Many good things come from my smartphone. I have made friends – good friends – who live in different countries from me, and I stay in touch with them using my phone. There are legitimately useful apps, like the medication reminder, the shared grocery list. Or the math puzzle game Euclidea that actually reverses some of the deleterious concentration effects I described above. I use GPS apps all the time and get lost much less often (though sadly, I still manage to get lost sometimes). I listen to so much more music variety than I did in the days when you had to buy records, tapes or CD’s, and it is so much more easy to discover new music now than then. I take a lot of photos with my phone, and some of those are real treasures that I wouldn’t otherwise have. I read some great articles, and have learned a ton of cool things. Chances are super-high you are reading this on a smartphone. I believe these are good things. So I don’t want to quit. And I don’t think anyone has to. We live in a pretty plugged in world, and more and more there are things that are designed to be done on our devices that are actually difficult if not impossible to do otherwise. So modified usage is the key.

Modification Requires Discipline

Or does it? I mean, yeah, it does. Almost always. If you want to modify a behaviour it means breaking a habit, and that is not trivial. You need to be disciplined. And you need to believe that you can do it. Which I think, for many people, is the main obstacle to success. That belief that you can do it. Which leads me to my food addiction:

How I Modified My Eating Behaviour

The first addiction in my life I had to acknowledge was food. Maybe I was genetically doomed to that, or maybe it was my upbringing, but my addiction to food is real either way. It resulted in a max weight of 250 lbs, and an adulthood of gaining-losing-gaining, until my heart attack 3 years ago. The heart attack was actually not caused by my eating, or so the cardiologist says, but rather genetics. My arteries are shaped in a more clog-worthy way than you’d set out to do if you were designing a human from scratch. However there’s no argument that my food addiction wasn’t helping. The heart attack added a new tool to my psyche though – something that’s simultaneously heard and easy to describe: a hard stop. Before the heart attack meals were a negotiation in my head. And I often didn’t come out the winner in the bargain. Now there is no negotiation. I eat clean, all the time. I don’t overeat. I actually can have just one french fry. Truly! French fries are a food I will not allow myself to order or prepare anymore, but on occasion I have had just one from someone else’s meal – even though they were finished and offered me the rest. Just one, for the taste, and I have no desire to eat another. Cardio is now a non-negotiable habit as well. I don’t negotiate whether or not I will do it. I just do.

I am as fit as I’ve ever been and certainly as healthy as I’ve ever been. People often ask me how I did it and I sadly tell them that I wish I could give them the secret, but the secret is I had a heart attack and I don’t want another one.

The picture on the left features my beautiful niece at her first birthday. You may be distracted by her cuteness – I understand. Take your time. But when you are ready, the place to look is my belly protruding under my forearm. The picture on the right is a fun shot I took after a workout a couple of weeks ago. Oh, and by the way – both those photos were taken with my phone.

So. I have managed to find a way to live a healthy life despite a food addiction, even if the way I found was not something I’d wish on anyone. But after all, isn’t it all in my head? This new tool I called the hard stop?

Of course it is. And because it is I believe I can apply that rationale to my phone addiction. I have started to, and will continue to do so.

What I Am Doing to Fix it

I turned off all the features of my phone that try to think for me. Any typos or wrong words I send now are all mine. And there are so much fewer of them now! It takes me longer to compose a message. But it’s worth it.

I will not look at my phone while watching TV. Not even during commercials. Because you can’t force yourself to stop the moment the commercial is over.

If I am in the middle of a legitimate text conversation with someone, I make sure the people in the room with me know it, so they know why I am checked out. And when it is done, I tell them explicitly that I am done and I put my phone away so that they can have my distraction-free attention.

When I sit down to do focus-heavy tasks, like work or drawing, I put my brain in do-not-disturb mode, meaning I don’t check notifications at all, and my phone becomes a music player exclusively. When I do this, I let anyone know who would normally feel like they have 24/7 access to me that I have gone dark. This way if they need to communicate with me they know they need to either do it in person or call. Because as we all know, nobody ever uses their smartphone as a telephone, so when there is an actual call I know I should check to see who it is and probably answer.

It Can Be Done

As they say, no need to throw the baby out with the bath water. You don’t have to quit if you can properly modify. And you can. I believe you don’t need a critical moment to be the catalyst. Just the knowledge that you can do it. And I really, really believe we need to.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences on smartphone addiction, and how it can be addressed. Feel free to share in the comments section.

Thanks for reading,

Rich

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Our Schooling System is Broken

It has been a while since my last blog – it was never my intention to go so long between posts but you know … sometimes life hands you other things. In any case I plan to start writing again more frequently, starting with a subject that has been on my mind for a while now: Education.

See, I am thinking our system might be broken. Scratch that – I know it’s broken, and in many ways. But I am talking about a fundamental issue, which is the assumption that performance in a school system with a standardized curriculum is a key measure of personal value. I will try to explain, starting with some background for context.

I Am a Teacher

It’s true. I am a teacher. A very happy one at that. I love my job. I teach high school math in Ontario, Canada, and have been doing that for about 15 years. Prior to that I worked as a software developer for about 10 years. When people ask me what I do for a living (something other adults seem to have a deep need to know upon meeting each other), the conversation always goes roughly the same way:

Other Adult: “So Rich, what do you do for a living?”
Rich: “I’m a teacher.”
OA: “Oh? Nice. What do you teach?”
(Rich’s note: There may or may not be a “joke” here by OA along the lines of “Oh yeah? You know what they say: ‘Those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach’ hahahahaha”)
Rich (being honest, even though it’s not what they meant): “Kids.”
OA: “Oh, haha. But seriously, what subject?”
Rich (with an inward eye-roll – here it comes): “I teach high school math.”
OA: “Oh god. I hate math. I remember I used to be so good at it until grade 8 when I had Ms. Heffernan. She hated me! And she was so terrible to the kids. She made me hate math. I never understood anything in math after that. I am so bad at math! The other day I tried to help my 7 year-old with her homework and I couldn’t even understand what they were doing. Do you tutor? I think I may need to hire you to help little Kelly with her math. Math is so confusing. I keep telling her she doesn’t need it anyway. I mean, I run a multi-million dollar business and I never use any of the math they tried to teach me in high school. Why don’t you guys start teaching useful stuff like understanding financial statements and investing? I had to learn all that stuff on my own. I don’t see why math is so important. I am really successful and I was never any good at it thanks to Ms. Heffernan …..”
Rich: “I apologize on behalf of all my brethren. Please carry on with your successful math-free life. Yes, I’d be happy to help Kelly, but honestly she probably doesn’t need any help. She’s 7. She will conquer.”

You get the point. But as I said, I seriously love my job. For many reasons. But perhaps the main one is that it keeps me connected to the fluidity of humanity. I keep getting older, but my students do not. They are the same age every year. And because I spend a large number of hours each day immersed in their culture, it forces me to keep my thinking current, so that I can continue to effectively communicate. In this way I feel less like some sort of flotsam floating on the river of time and more like a beaver dam of sorts, constantly filtering new water on it’s way downstream, being shored up with new materials as each generation passes through. I am like a connection between the past and the future, and the older I get, the larger the gap I am privileged to span. And in any case, young people are perpetually awesome. It brings a faith in humanity I’m not sure I could get in other ways to see firsthand the caretakers of the future.

School Is Not Really About Education

I can hear your thoughts.

Um, what? Isn’t school by definition about education?

Well, yeah. Granted it’s supposed to be. But it isn’t. All you have to do is talk to almost any adult existing in Western society today about it and they will tell you (often with great relish, as though they are solving world hunger), they never use a single thing they learned in school in their day-to-day lives. Which is of course false. But mostly true. If you went to school in Canada you probably at some point had to know things like what year Champlain landed in Quebec (1608, in case you’re stumped – I just Googled it). I can say with a fair amount of confidence that whether or not you have that tidbit of info available in your memory banks is not affecting your life in any measurable way. You probably also had to know the quadratic formula at some point. I don’t have to Google that one. It’s x=\frac{-b\pm\sqrt{b^2-4ac}}{2a}. Nifty, isn’t it? Sorry if I scared you.

Here. Check out these definitions of “education”. I Googled it.

Definition of Education
Side note: Google is so cool. I’m 48. I have existed both with and without Google. I had to assimilate the use of Google as a verb into a lexicon that did not previously have it established that way. Your kids didn’t. They have to establish the word googol as a noun referring to the number 10^{100} into a lexicon that likely does not have it established that way.

See? The very first definition says I am wrong. School is about education, literally by definition. Oh, but check out definition number 2! Now that is a good one. Education is an enlightening experience! The thing is, in many cases, and for many people, school isn’t enlightening. In many cases, school is an exercise in conformity and alignment. It’s a system which simultaneously (and somewhat arbitrarily) defines success (um, I think I mean worth) and then provides measures for individuals to evaluate their success (yeah, I definitely mean worth).

Performance of Curriculum is a False Measure of Worth

Ok. So when you were a kid, around the age of 5, your parents sent you off to school. And almost immediately, you started to get report cards. They aren’t cards anymore. In many cases they aren’t even paper. But still called report cards. A figurative card summarizing your score on a number of predetermined criteria for success. And make no mistake – from that very first report card on, kids are sent the message that they must perform according to standards so that they get good report cards. I’m going to stay away from the early years, since that’s not my area of expertise, and fast forward to high school, which is. Let’s look at an example. This is based on a real person, whose name I’ve changed. Yes it’s anecdotal. It’s not meant as proof, only to demonstrate my point.

Sally is a young lady in grade 9 who has never particularly had an interest in math – at least in how it’s presented at school. She really doesn’t care about direct vs. partial variation, or the sum of the exterior angles of a polygon, or about how doubling the radius affects the volume of a sphere. But Sally goes to school, in a system which has not only determined that these things are important, they are also mandatory. So she has no choice but to engage in attempts to learn about these things, despite the fact that she is actually incapable of being interested in them. Sally is awesome, by the way. A genuinely caring human with deep empathy, intense loyalty, and a great sense of humour. Sally is also depressed, because she feels worthless. No matter how hard she tries, she can’t figure out how substituting 2r for r into the formula V=\frac{4}{3}\pi r^3 causes the volume to increase by a factor of 8. In a test designed to determine if Sally can do these things, her performance was dismal. Her mark on that test was a 58%. The class average was 85%. When the teacher returned the test, she made comments like “Well, I know that I taught about exterior angles, but it is clear that some of you did not learn it.” When Sally brought the test home to show her parents (who, incidentally, knew that Sally had the test coming up, hired a tutor to help her prepare, and then asked if she had gotten it back each day after school starting the day after it had been written until the day a week later when it was returned), her parents were frustrated and disappointed. Sally has been conditioned to believe that her ability to understand direct and partial variation is critical. Because it is mandatory, her inability to care or comprehend is forcibly highlighted. And subsequently, her performance is recorded for posterity on her report card. Sally’s final grade in math ends up being 61%. Her parents are disappointed. Sally is devastated. She believes there is something fundamentally wrong with her, because she legitimately can not measure up to the standards set in a system she has no choice but to be engaged in.

Breaking Down the Process

Let’s have a look at this situation of Sally’s, and the number of places where the system went wrong.

First off, the concepts Sally has to learn have honestly been arbitrarily determined. See, someone, somewhere, decided that Calculus is an important prerequisite subject for many university and college programs. And to learn Calculus (a grade 12 subject in Ontario), you arguably have to start with concepts like direct and partial variation in earlier grades. And because grade 9 is truly too early to know if programs that require Calculus are in your future, this pre-calculus material is incorporated into the curriculum for pretty much everybody.

Second, math is mandatory. In Ontario high school is a 4-year program, and you must have a minimum of 3 math credits to earn a high school diploma. All of this has nothing – and everything – to do with Sally. Next comes the process. Sally’s teacher created quite possibly an amazing series of lessons on these topics. Sally just doesn’t have the wiring for them, so even though the teacher may be phenomenal, it will have a marginal impact on Sally’s ability to synthesize the material. Sally used to ask questions in class. Now she doesn’t, because she learned that even when she asked, it didn’t help. Sally is deeply empathic – she has seen firsthand the good intentions and effort of her teachers in the past. She can read facial expressions and body language. She has seen her teachers answer her questions and try to help her and seen how much they believe the answers and help are working, so she has pretended that it was, since that was easier than admitting that it wasn’t, because it meant burdening herself with her inadequacy instead of her teachers.

Third, Sally has been conditioned to believe that it is all being done so that she can get high grades. Because ultimately her success is defined by her report card. And because pretty much everyone is telling her that you don’t need this stuff in life anyway. You just need to learn it to get high grades so you can be successful. Which means the only purpose to learning this stuff is the test you will eventually write on it. This is exacerbated by the well-intentioned parents who put so much emphasis on the test – both before and after. You’ve heard the question “When am I ever going to use this?” Well the answer for most kids is “Next week, when you are tested on it.”

See? It’s all artificial. Sally is a high-worth kid, forced into a situation she isn’t wired for, and told that her worth is defined by her performance in that situation. It’s incredibly sad to watch.

The Present and the Future

So here’s where we are now. Many kids and parents these day believe that high marks are critical. The perception is that material presented in school is not inherently valuable, but instead the value is that it is a vehicle to high marks. This means that kids will often do anything it takes to get the high marks. This includes cheating, but that’s not really what I am driving at. What I mean is that they develop strategies that focus on getting high marks, as opposed to learning. Cramming for tests, paying for courses in small private schools that guarantee (implicitly or explicitly) very high grades, or negotiating with teachers (even to the extent of aggressively bullying) after the fact are all standard operating procedure. What is so terrible is that Sally may be able to get high grades using any of these tactics. But Sally will also always know that she didn’t earn them. She will always know that she is not good at something that she should be good at if she is to be valuable. And if and when she manages to gets the high grades anyway, that sense of fraudulence will haunt her. I’ve seen it. It’s tragic. Sally has a great future if she can discover her true worth. The worth she was born with and the worth that her friends probably value more than anything she can do in a math class. But she may or may not discover it.

What I Do About It

I love people. And that includes the kids I teach. And I teach high level math, which is honestly not for everyone. I get a lot of kids coming through my classroom doors who are not there because they want to be, and who will not be able to draw the joy from studying math that I really, really do. I have constraints. I have to teach the material as it’s laid out by governmental process. I have to assign grades that reflect students’ performance against some pretty specific criteria. But within this I make sure that each and every kid I teach knows that I value them as a person. That I care about their story. That I see them not as a 2-dimensional projection of my consciousness, but as a multi-dimensional consciousness of their own, with a narrative as rich and intricate as mine. I make sure that they understand that any evaluation I do of their abilities in math is a tiny, tiny cog in the complex machinery of their existence, and has zero impact on my impressions of them as people, or on my estimation of their worth. I show them that it is totally acceptable to love and be passionate about math, without tying that love and passion to an evaluation. It’s not about the math. It’s about giving them permission to take joy out of abstractions, and to pursue the things that they were wired to do. I’m not always successful. Some kids are too preconditioned. But I will never stop trying.

Thanks for reading,

Rich

Thoughts From a Dance Dad

Lately it seems as though the amount of time I have to write is inversely proportional to the amount of ideas I have to write about. But today’s entry is about something I’ve been thinking about for years: Dance.

Early Years

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My Little Ballerina (age 5)

My daughter is a competitive dancer. She’s 15, and has been dancing since she was around 3. She’s gone to countless dance camps, workshops, and of course classes. So I have been a dance spectator for about 12 years. Prior to that I knew next to nothing about dance, save for the fact that I have never been any good at it.

At first, dance was pretty much entirely about how cute the kids all looked executing choreography. They got to wear these elaborate costumes and perform for friends and family at recitals. The teachers and teaching assistants are always on stage at the same time as the kids, and the kids essentially never take their eyes off them, mimicking the movements they’ve all spent months in class learning. It’s exceedingly adorable, and naturally every person who comes to watch immediately rushes to them afterwards to tell them how wonderfully they danced. In short, it’s a typical exercise in getting kids involved in an activity that provides some structure around working toward a goal, and then the kids get congratulated on essentially existing for the duration. And it’s awesome.

As the years progressed, we saw less and less boys involved. I won’t attempt to analyze that or comment on why it might be, but political minefield notwithstanding, it is true. This meant that as the dancers grew, it became – for my daughter’s group at least – a girls-only activity.

Emerging Talents
1042Starting around the age of 8 or 9, and lasting for 3-4 years, it starts to become obvious which of the girls are well suited to dance and which are not. This obviousness is not lost on the girls. Dance becomes a micro-society where “Haves” and “Have-Nots” start to identify, and the behaviours that result are what you would expect. In a way it mirrors what is happening at that age in school, but from where I sat it was definitely magnified at dance. These can be pretty difficult years for the girls, and perhaps more so for the parents. As I watched from the sidelines, I always told myself that whether a Have or a Have-Not, there are very valuable lessons to be learned from these dramas, and whether my daughter was receiving or giving grief (it certainly seemed she was receiving a lot more than giving, but nobody ever accused a dad of being impartial), my wife and I always did our best to ground her in reality and look for the long-term life lessons that could be taken. I do think, subjectivity aside, that I can safely say my daughter began to show real talent for dance during this time. I can also say, objectively this time, that she emerged from this phase with an inner-strength and confidence that is astounding. As I watch her navigate the social quagmire of the tenth grade, I am exceedingly proud and awed at how well she manages to stay true to herself and her friends, while gliding above the drama that can consume most kids of that age. She never judges others, and always stays honest in helping her friends deal with whatever the current issue is. In and out of the dance world I have watched her handle victories with honest grace and compassion, and failures with resolute determination. She’s my hero, and I firmly believe we have the “emerging talent” years of the competitive dance program to thank for that.

From Girls to Women
As the girls mature into women, things change at dance in a way that I could never have understood if I were not so immersed in it. This phase is not something I came to understand only as my daughter entered it – the nice thing about being a dance dad is that every recital and dance competition you attend features dancers from all the age groups. So that long before my daughter was in high school I have been observing this stage of a dancer’s development. I also have the added advantage of being a high school teacher, and so for my entire career have had the pleasure of seeing how dancers take the lessons from dance into seemingly unrelated arenas, like a math classroom, which really is my domain. Having a daughter in dance always made me pay attention to how older dancers behaved, kind of as a way of glimpsing my daughter’s future. Here are some observations I’ve made over the years, and observations I have now had the pleasure of seeing manifest in my own daughter.

Dance is a Language
This is not metaphor. Dance actually is a language. It took me some time to fully appreciate that. Because of my daughter’s involvement in dance, our family has been marisa-dancewatching So You Think You Can Dance since season 2. It’s a great show to be sure, but I admit at first I was too absorbed in marveling at the physicality of it to understand what it communicates, despite the fact that the judges on the show really do a great job emphasizing this (I always assumed they were saying it metaphorically). But like a child that learns to speak simply from hearing the spoken word and contextually absorbing meaning from the sound, I began to absorb meaning from the movement. The first thing I realized was that unlike languages that use words, dance doesn’t translate to any other language, and communicates things which can’t be communicated any other way, with the possible exceptions of fine art, or poetry. Really good fine art will enthrall and speak to the viewer through infinite contemplation of something static. Really good poetry succeeds at using words which individually can be quite linear, by combining them in a way to create depth and consequently say something the language the poem is written in was not necessarily designed to say. Really good dance? A different thing entirely. It speaks to our humanity on multiple levels, and the fluidity of it allows the choreographer/dancer to tell us stories no written word could approach.

Words are discrete, and a picture is static. But motion is a continuous medium, and the very continuity of it results in an infinity of expression within a finite frame of time and space. It has been said that dance is poetry in motion, but I honestly have come to see it in the reverse. Poetry is dance stood still. I can’t find words to describe this any better, because words will fail here. If you want to know what I mean, watch dancers. And in the same way that second and third languages improve thought processes and imagination, so does dance – but it does so in a way that is magnified a thousandfold because of its unique method of delivery, and because of the world of thought and emotion it opens up for communication. It also is unique in that you don’t have to be able to speak it to understand it. You only have to watch.

Dancers Make the Best Actors
Because of my passion for theatre, I have had the immense pleasure of being both actor and director in various musicals. And here is what I’ve noticed – not all great actors are dancers, but all dancers are definitely great actors. To me there is no mystery as to why this is. Many actors focus on the words they’re saying or singing, trying to pour all of the character they’re portraying into the delivery of the lines or lyrics. Physicality is often an afterthought, or a simple by-product of the emotion they are feeling about the performance. For dancers it’s entirely different. Because of their fluency in dance, they are simultaneously vocalizing and dancing the performance. By dancing I don’t mean the choreography that often accompanies musical numbers, although naturally a dancer excels there. Rather I mean that they are speaking to us in two languages simultaneously. And even those of us not able to communicate with dance can still understand it. So I have often found myself thinking of a dancer “It’s not a je ne sais quois she has. It’s a je sais qu’elle est une danceuse” (yes, you have to speak some french for that one  😉 ).

Dance is Empowering
Okay. So obviously dance results in physical fitness. You can always spot a dancer by their muscle tone, posture and grace in simple movement. The importance of this can’t be underplayed. But the kind of empowerment I’m talking about here is more than that. I flying-marisaremember once at a dance recital there was a senior acro small group number about to start (see what I did there – Dance Dad knows the terminology). It was clear from the opening positions that one of the dancers was going to execute a crazy trick to start the dance. Before the music started there were hoots and hollers from the wings and from the audience, and one dancer’s voice from the wings rang out with “You GO girl!”. I was momentarily taken aback. I think maybe I had just read an article or watched a show where that phrase was called into question as demeaning to women. And then I looked around. The stage and venue was dense with strong, confident young women, certain of themselves and certain of their power. And the dancer who called it out numbered among them. I couldn’t see anything demeaning at that point about what she had said, but on a deeper level I realized just what dance had done for these kids. It showed them what inner strength, determination and dedication could do. And so naturally I began to think about the dancers I’ve taught in my math classroom and I had this moment of revelation. It is exactly that quality that has always made them stand out to me in that setting. Not that they all excel in math, because not all kids do. But that regardless of their abilities in math, there is always an inner strength and peace that says “I know who I am, I know what I can do, and I know how to commit to improving.” Where many students in high school still need the explicit motivation that our culture seems to thrive on too often, the dancers have internalized their motivation in the best way. I can’t say enough how important that is for success in life.

unsung-marisa

Thanks for reading,

Rich

Choose Your Memories

Short blog today based on a conversation I had recently.

I was talking to a graduating student about how he is going to choose a university. He has been accepted into his two top choices and he doesn’t know how he will decide which one to attend. One university is more widely recognized but would mean moving far from home, where none of his friends will go, and has a more difficult program. The other university is closer to home and has a slightly easier program. Both offer the same degree. After discussing that this was a nice problem to have, I gave him the advice I always give myself. Choose your memories.

Choose your memories

The simple truth is that all you are is your memories. The present is a fleeting instant, and the future is unknowable, so your whole life experience – and how you view yourself – is based on your memories of the past. In fact, there is an interesting perspective that points out that since it takes a small amount of time to process what your senses are perceiving, our “present” is in fact already past, which is pretty weird to think about. But that aside, too often people think about a choice like the one my student must make in terms of how the choice will affect their future. The truth is it’s much better to think about how it will affect your past. I asked him which memory he wants.

Which memory do you want?

He didn’t know what I meant by that. I said, picture yourself 10 years down the road. Right now I know that whichever university you attend you will finish the program. So 10 years from now, looking back at your decision, which one will you want to be glad you made? Who would you rather be? The dude with the memory of university A or the one with the memory of university B?

Choices are an opportunity to build the memory you want, which ultimately means to build the person you want. In this way they are very exciting. Every choice is your chance to be more awesome. Take control of your character and choose the memories you’ll be glad to have, so that you can be the person you want to be.

Thanks for reading,

Rich

Arithmophobia (Fear of Math): My Thoughts

I’ve been a high school math teacher for 11 years now, and I’ve also been tutoring students privately for even longer than that. Consequently I’ve seen the whole spectrum of math students. Everything from the freakishly gifted to the astonishingly weak, For the most part I think this is fine. Some people are wired for certain things and some are not. I am not wired to be a sprinter. I could train my butt off for years and still not qualify for a track team. I’ve made peace with that.

What I don’t think is fine however, is the growing number of math-phobic students I am seeing. Students whose deep fear of math is so intense that it is almost impossible to determine where their strengths and weaknesses in the subject are. To understand what I mean think of a person who suffers from stage fright so severely that every time they sing in front of even a small group of people their throat closes up and all they can manage is a pathetic croak. Anyone listening would conclude this person is a terrible singer. Yet it may not be true. The neurosis camouflages the talent and it’s impossible to know what the person’s singing ability really is. What makes it worse is that it is extremely difficult to evaluate the cause of poor performance. After all, some people just can’t sing.

In math these students whose fear interferes with their performance very often conclude that they have no ability in the subject, which further feeds the phobia. A seriously vicious cycle that is difficult to break, even after it’s been recognized. So my question as of late has been, what’s causing the increase in math-phobic students?

I don’t have research to back my conclusions. It’s all purely anecdotal. However these observations have been made from the trenches. I see these students every day, in a classroom setting and one-on-one, for over 11 years. Here are my thoughts.

Poor Evaluation Criteria
More and more I am becoming convinced that this may be one of the single biggest causes of arithmophobia. I am talking about the alarming tendency for students’ grades to not reflect their ability, due to poor evaluation criteria. I’ll give you an example.

A simple linear equation to solve.

A simple linear equation to solve.

here is one student’s work, graded:
A flawed solution to the simple equation.

A flawed solution to the simple equation.

and here is another student’s work, also graded:

The equation answered correctly but not traditionally.

The equation answered correctly but not traditionally.

The first student received a mark of 2/3, which rounds to 67%. What are we to take from this? Imagine the student coming home with a report card that says 67% in math. What would the parents conclude? What would an independent observer (like a university) conclude about a grade of 67% in math? The easiest and most likely answer is that this is a student who grasps roughly 67% of the concepts covered in math. With respect to this question and the topic it tests, it means the student grasps only 67% of the concept of solving linear equations. Now based on their work, do you believe that is a true assessment? What would we have this student believe? It’s disturbing to say the least.

But significantly more disturbing is the grade of 0/3 assigned to the second student. This student answered the question correctly, however the traditional approach is to assign one mark per step in the question, and since the student did not show any of the expected work, he lost all marks. Now he has 0%. What would that say to parents and universities? Most disturbingly, what does it say to the child?

Stop and ask yourself what it means to solve an equation. The above equation, translated to English, states that

“There is a number which is multiplied by 4 and then the product is reduced by 3, for a result of 29.”

The instruction “Solve for x” means

“Tell me what the number is.”

Student 2 has successfully done just that. Period. End of discussion. Not only has he correctly answered the question, but in doing so has demonstrated that he understands the question and has the higher level thinking skills to answer it without employing any traditional algorithms. And we work in an educational system which has evolved to tell this student that he is so bad at math he gets a zero. Shame on us. Shame on us all.

So what happens to this student? Well from my experience he either dismisses the subject as “a stupid bunch of rules” (and who can blame him? When the answer is so obvious what value is there in writing down a bunch of steps that do nothing more than add tedium?), or he “learns” that to be good at math you have to suppress your instincts and replace them with the all-important STEPS. And let me tell you something. By the time you get to senior math in high school, there are a lot of steps! There’s no way most of us – myself very much included – could memorize all those steps, know precisely when to apply them, and do so with complete accuracy and precision every time.

Enter fear.

Imagine for a second you are a dog. A puppy. You mean no harm to anyone and in fact are a bouncing bundle of happiness and joy. Unfortunately you have an owner who has anger issues. You’ve discovered that your owner hates it when there is pee on the carpet in the house. The reason you know this is because every time he discovers any he loses his temper and yells. So in order to help, you begin peeing in hiding places around the house. To a dog this makes a lot of sense and is very considerate. Unfortunately all this does is make your owner even more angry, to the point where he smacks you every time he discovers the hidden pee. Result? You are now afraid of the owner, and afraid of peeing. Nothing productive comes of this because despite your best efforts, and despite the fact that you are doing what you think is right, you are still getting in trouble. That is a recipe for fear. And that is what happens to students who do what they think/know is right, but get rewarded with marks like 0/3 for their efforts. How can a person continue with a positive attitude under those kinds of circumstances?

What also happens to a large number of students is that over the years, as they fail more and more to memorize the right “rules”, they become more and more disillusioned with themselves. The mathematics becomes totally obscured by the algorithms, to the point where students believe that the algorithms are the mathematics, and can hardly be convinced otherwise.

I tutor a student named Randy and she is in grade 7. Here is a question from a test she wrote recently.

Sam has answered the question “7 – 3 ½” with “4 ½”. Sam says this is because seven minus three is four, and then there’s an extra half to make four and a half. Is Sam correct? Explain.

Here is what Randy wrote:

Sam is not correct. To answer the question you have to convert 7 and 3 ½ to improper fractions, then subtract the numerators, then convert your answer back to a mixed number. This is what Sam should have done:
7 – 3 ½ = 14/2 – 7/2
= 7/2
= 3 ½
So the correct answer is 3 ½

For this answer Randy received a “2+” which is a mark out of 4, with these comments from the teacher: “What was wrong with Sam’s thinking? How could he modify his strategy so that it would work? Expand on your answer.”

Hmmmmmmm. My thoughts as a teacher were immediately “Those comments would have made good questions for students to answer on the test instead of criticisms of Randy’s answer”. In any case let’s have a look at how this result impacted Randy.

So marks out of 4 like this one can be roughly converted to percentages, which they ultimately will be for reporting purposes. A mark of “2+” converts to around 65%-70%. I implore you, dear reader, to tell me just exactly how Randy has shown her capabilities in subtracting mixed numbers from whole numbers to be 30% less than perfect. The message to Randy?

Because you were unable to extrapolate from the word “explain” that I, your teacher, was expecting you to delve into the mind of a person who, unlike yourself, can not subtract mixed numbers from whole numbers, I conclude that you, Randy are a mediocre math student, at best. Despite the fact that the question was in two parts (“Is Sam correct?” and “Explain”), and that you addressed both correctly, you should have known that what I was really looking for was for you to help Sam understand why his thinking was wrong, despite the fact that it did not say this anywhere in the question and despite the fact that Sam is a fictitious person. Please work harder from now on so that you may become a better math student.

Randy was in tears over her results. She said she was sure she understood the material going into the test but she’s just bad at math and she hates it and she is never going to be good at it. It took quite an effort on my part to show Randy that she completely and perfectly understands subtraction of mixed numbers from whole numbers and that the real flaw is the question. I’m not sure she is totally convinced and her grade in math will certainly not reflect what I know to be true so it will be a difficult pill for her to swallow. Randy is developing a serious case of arithmophobia based on experiences like this. She is not wired to “know what the teacher means”. She reads instructions and takes them literally, and then answers them as best she can, usually correctly. But since there is more wrapped up in the evaluation criteria than is revealed in the question itself, Randy is rewarded for her efforts with marks like “2+”. To her this makes math incomprehensible, and who can blame her? To her math is now a mysterious subject with weird expectations that you have to “just know”, and what hope does she have of being able to do that?

So what can we do? The answer is as simple to state as it is difficult to implement in today’s education environment:

Let’s start teaching MATH again. And when we grade a student’s work let’s stop comparing what they did to some sort of “template of perfection” and instead evaluate what the work we see says about the student’s fundamental understanding of the mathematical concepts. Solving an equation means finding the values of the variable that make the equation true. The fact that we have algorithms for solving equations is wonderful and essential for very difficult equations, but let’s not punish students who are able to understand and solve without the algorithm! Let’s celebrate those students because they are the ones who really get it. The algorithms can be introduced and reinforced later when the equations get harder, but it serves no purpose to tell a student like that they are bad at math, for they are truly not. And for students like Randy? Let’s throw away the rubrics and fancy words and assess what their work tells us about their abilities. If we want Randy to extend her knowledge to be able to help Sam modify his strategy so that it will work let’s help her with that, but there is very little value in tying her grade in math to that ability, unless that ability is very specifically what we are trying to teach and assess, in which case we need to ask ultimately how much is that worth and how should it be reflected in the grade that she will use to determine her performance?

Arithmophobia is real and it is getting worse each year. We must change what we are doing if we want to reverse the trend.

Thanks for reading,

Rich

On Excellence

Yesterday I was having a conversation with a few of my graduating students about their post-secondary plans. It came up that many students are making choices about which schools to attend and which courses to take based on how easy they think it will be to get high grades, so that they have a better chance of getting into programs like medical school. This is not something I was surprised to hear, as I’ve heard it many times. There are schools in our province that have the reputation for being “hard” and those that are reputed to be easy. Go to an easy school, get high grades, then coast into med school.

My question has always been “Ok, and then what?”

The answer?

“Then I’ll be a doctor.”

That’s when I always want to know what kind of doctor they plan to be. I don’t mean what area of medicine – I mean what level of competence. Very very few students say they want to be mediocre. They all plan on being excellent. I can’t help but wonder how they intend to make that true. I have questions.

What is the path to true excellence? Is it an easy one? Is it possible to simply do whatever it takes to get there as easily and quickly as possible, and then once there reap the rewards? Many think so, but it’s not true.

The path to excellence does not exist. Excellence is not a place you go. Excellence is a mode of travel.

So while there may be no path to excellence, there is a path of excellence. There is also the easy path, and they are very much not the same journey. If you want to be excellent – if you want to live on that path, then you need to work at it. It’s hard, and there are way more people choosing the easy path, but excellence is the most rewarding path there is. Yet so many people spend so much effort trying to look excellent instead of actually working to be excellent. And this is a source of great stress. When everyone around you appears to be perfect, and you know you are not, it can make you crazy. So students do what they can to appear perfect. Taking easy courses, engaging in academic dishonesty (that’s modern speak for cheating for you old-fashioned folk out there) and essentially making diligence and discipline the last resort.

My students say, “But if I take harder courses I’ll get lower marks and I won’t get into med school.”

I say, ‘Not true! Take hard courses and get high marks! It can be done. There are people doing it. Be one of those people. Be the person everyone is afraid they have to compete with instead of the person taking easy courses to compete.”

If you choose to take the easy path to get where you want to go, then once you think you’ve made it you will discover that there’s no way to leap the chasm to the path of excellence. You will be a walking fraud.

On the other hand, if you dedicate every step to being excellent then when you become a doctor (or whatever else it is that you want to be), you will be an amazing one. Having dedicated yourself to the path of excellence you won’t have to pretend to be excellent, because you will be the paradigm of it.

My message is simple. If you want to look excellent, then be excellent. Maintaining a shell of excellence draped over a mediocre core will erode your spirit. Be bulletproof. Don’t look excellent. Be excellent. It’s way less stressful.

Thanks for reading,

Rich

The Death of the Mistake

(Disclaimer: NOT ALL PARENTS are guilty of what I describe in this blog, so please don’t take it personally. But many are. Far too many.)

I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life. I imagine you have too. Some of mine are pretty indelible for me.

Like the time my friend and I were playing with fire (literally) and almost burned down a hotel. We were scared to death and actually grateful we got caught.

Like the time I decided I could get through that intersection before the car coming from the left got there. Result? One totaled car that wasn’t even mine. It was my girlfriend’s car.

Like the time I thought I could get away without studying for my final exam in STAT 331 and still scrape a credit in the course. I earned a 42. I asked the prof to remark the exam which he did. The mark went down.

I didn’t like any of these or the countless others when they happened. Actually they felt pretty miserable. Yet each one has had an impact on decisions I made later in life and each one of those failures thus resulted in bigger successes. This is not a revolutionary concept. The phrase “we learn from our mistakes” is not new. But have you ever considered exactly how true it is? We aren’t born with an abundance of knowledge. In fact we are born with almost none. We know how to do things like breathe and cry and fill diapers, but we can’t even control those actions much. At first, all the knowledge we accrue comes from our innate curiosity and willingness to take risks. What’s funny is that as babies we don’t even know we are risking anything. We’re just really curious. Watch all the stuff a baby is willing to put in his mouth. You’ll know exactly what I mean. So babies try things and sometimes the result is pleasant or satisfying and other times its not. Each experience whether success or failure goes into the data bank and both guides subsequent experiments and imbues us with confidence regarding our ability to reproduce successes. In this way it is completely correct to categorize both “success” and “failure” as positive outcomes. And yet we have attached so much negativity to the word failure that it has become a thing to be reviled and feared … avoided at all costs. Which is a true tragedy, because success in the absence of failure is yin without yang.

As time passes the culture we grow up in imposes a formalized education, mainly because there is value placed on certain nuggets of knowledge. This happens in the form of school. And that’s where I come in.

Sort of. I teach high school so I guess I come in about 10 years later. After 10 years of a system which has sadly killed the mistake. Kids are no longer encouraged or allowed to experiment. They have to “get it right” the first time. Many parents spend insane amounts of energy making sure their children never experience failure, defeat or mistakes. A friend of mine calls this phenomenon “the snowplow parenting” model. The parents walk ahead of the child, plowing all obstacles out of the way, frantically making sure that no failure is ever experienced. As the child grows and the potential obstacles increase, parents run themselves ragged continuing to pave a smooth way. The effect this has on the kids is incredibly frightening. The child grows up not ever really experiencing a failure, but watching parents become more and more neurotic making sure this “failure monster” never has a chance to get near their kid. It’s a doubly-bad edged sword. First, no failure is ever experienced so there is no chance for the best kind of learning and second, the children pick up on this deep fear of failure and when they find themselves faced with the potential for a mistake they freeze in terror at the possibility. In short, they are simply not equipped to deal with anything but a smooth road, and lack the understanding and confidence that comes from having failed.

So what I see in my math class is kids who are petrified of assessment. I have seen kids cry when they earn a mark in the 90’s on a test. Worse, I’ve seen kids with marks in the 90’s crying when they come in to write a test because of how afraid they are that they might make a mistake. And I’ve had to defend marks to parents who insist to me not that their child earned a higher mark, but that their child needs the higher mark. In grade 9. A grade that no university or college even remotely cares about. A grade for which no scholarships are awarded. Yet the child needs the higher mark. Lest they experience failure.

This phenomenon may actually be the single biggest threat to our culture. Thanks to Snowplow Parents we are raising a generation of kids who have never had a chance to experiment and fail. Never a chance to pursue curiosity, which is the spark for innovation. So what we get is anxiety-ridden underperformers with huge self-esteem issues, fostered by parents who have made it clear that the child is not capable of fending for themselves and thus needs the parents’ involvement every step of the way.

Parents, please. Take a step back. Watch them do it themselves. Watch them fail and celebrate the failure. Mistakes are critical for evolution. Let’s bring them back. Let’s start the Mistake Revival.

Thanks for reading,

Rich

Parenting From the Bow

I have two kids, and it is definitely true that along with my wife, there is nothing in this world more important to me than them. At the time of writing, my son is 15 and my daughter is 11. So between my wife and I we have a total of 26 child-years of parenting experience (plus 4 dog-years and 9 budgie-years). This hardly qualifies me as an authority on the subject, but I do think about the responsibilities of parenthood in general and fatherhood specifically quite often, and I thought I’d put some of my thoughts into pixels today. I will borrow a little from the speech I made at my son’s Bar Mitzvah, and I will also use some quotes from an early twentieth-century philosopher named Kahlil Gibran as the springboard for my take on things. As it turns out, Gibran and I agree on very many things when it comes to kids.

Children are the mirror to your soul.
~ Kahlil Gibran

That sentiment is the simplest way I can express what my children mean to me. When I look in a mirror, I see my face. When I look at my children, I see my soul.

When my wife Marla and I discovered we were going to have our first child, we started doing what I imagine just about every couple does at that time. We started planning how we were going to make our child into the most perfect human the world has seen. We were going to make sure he was the smartest, most charismatic, most athletic, and most well-rounded person imaginable. We were going to mold him into a superstar. We read all the books, watched all the videos, and attended all the seminars. We bought all the best stuff. We were ready.

Then he was born. And then we learned how it really works.

The truth is, you don’t get to tell your children who they are going to be. That’s not at all what raising a child is. It turns out that what raising a child is really about is paying attention as they tell you who they already are. And if you’re wise, and lucky, you find out that who they are is the exact kind of person you love to know, and to be around. And that’s exactly who my children are. They are the best parts of myself, and of Marla, and a good dose of all those who came before us in the ancestral tree. They are the soul of all of us.

Before our son was born, Marla and I thought we could make him into the perfect person, but we were wrong. He’s not the perfect person. He’s better than that. He is the perfect him. And our daughter, who could not be more different than our son? You guessed it — she is the perfect her.

As a teacher I am fortunate to work with kids all the time. I spend a large part of my days with other people’s children, and it is absolutely the best part of my job. When people find out I teach high school they always ask me what I teach, and my response is always “kids”. They laugh as though it’s a joke but it’s really not. Because while I love math, and that is my subject area, teaching any subject in high school is really about helping kids grow into adults. So I really pay attention to my students, because I find I have so much to learn from them about who they are, and then I in turn can help them grow into the best version of themselves possible.

Of course I know that it is their parents who are primarily responsible for that, and a lot of what I have learned about parenting comes from looking at my students and then looking at their parents. And I can tell you this with 100% certainty: The students I have taught with the highest self-esteem and who are the most comfortable with who they are are the ones whose parents allow them to be who they are. Conversely the ones with the most issues regarding self-worth and academic performance are the ones whose parents are working extremely hard to turn them into something they are not. Imagine growing up in an environment where your most loved and trusted people — your parents — are constantly working to steer you away from who you are and what you want. As a math teacher, I see it most commonly in kids who are being forced to stay in the maths and sciences because their parents have decided that there is no future in the arts. However it goes beyond that. There are parents who seem determined to shape their kids into something different than what they are. It’s sad. As parents we need to see our children the way sculptors see their sculptures — as something that already exists in the rough, and our job is to help reveal that magic to the world.

Here’s another Gibran quote that I love:

Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. They come through you but not from you, And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you. You may give them your love but not your thoughts. For they have their own thoughts. You may house their bodies but not their souls, For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams. You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you. For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday. You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth. The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far. Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness; For even as he loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.
~ Kahlil Gibran

Even if you are not religious the quote is wise. What Gibran is saying is that once a child is born, they are their own person. Children do not belong to anyone but themselves, and the future is theirs to make. Parents are the stable bow. We are the home base and the place our children come from, but the journey they are on, where they go in life, belongs entirely to them. We can guide and encourage, but we can not, nor should we, change the flight of the arrow once it is loosed from the bow.

When it comes to my children, Gibran was right. I don’t seek to make them like me. I strive to be like them.

Thanks for reading,

Rich

A Short Lesson on Credit Cards

Many people who use credit cards understand how they work, but many don’t. I was teaching a class on this the other day and a student of mine pointed out that she thinks her parents don’t know about what I was teaching, and suggested I write an article. So I thought, why not? The math can get a little confusing, so I’ll avoid most of it and just give the answers. Keep in mind this is a lesson I do with high school students, so I ask your forgiveness in advance if you read the whole article and never encounter anything you didn’t already know.

First things first. If you pay your credit card balance in full before the due date each month, you win. You are not paying any interest at all. So for example if you bought something at the beginning of your credit card cycle for $1000, the bank actually lent you the money to buy it without charging any interest, meaning you have owned something for a month before you had to pay for it, and it was at the complete and total expense of the bank. Not bad. In fact, if you really want to be clever, you can buy a $5000 television, charge it to your credit card, go from the store to the bank and deposit $5000 into a one-month GIC, and when the credit card statement comes withdraw the $5000 from the GIC to pay the bill. The GIC will have earned interest for a month so in effect that bank will have paid you to watch their television for a month. Nobody does this really, but in theory there’s no reason why you could not. Pretty cool.

So for people paying their balance in full each month, more power to you! Especially if you have some sort of points earning system on your card, which I’ll get to shortly.

Now for those who do not pay the balance in full, a short lesson on what happens. First, I’ll explain what the banks do about the interest.

As I said before, when people pay the balance in full, interest is never charged. But that doesn’t mean it’s not calculated — it really means it’s forgiven. So a purchase made 20 days before the statement date does accrue 20 days of interest (accrue means interest is added on), but it’s forgiven if the balance is paid in full. On the other hand, if the balance is not paid, that 20 days of interest kicks in.

I’ll use an example showing a just a few purchases. Here goes.

Assumptions:

  • No balance at beginning of cycle
  • Credit card interest rate is 20% (most are slightly below this as I type, but not significantly so — contrast that with current prime lending rate in Canada which is 1%!)
  • Cycle runs from January 1st to February 1st
  • Minimum payment due to credit card company is 3% of the outstanding balance (this is normal).

Purchases:

  • January 1: $2500 on a 54-inch LCD 3D TV. Great deal post holiday.
  • January 5: $400 on 3D DVD’s. Turns out watching regular TV on a 3D TV is a tad boring.
  • January 7: $200 in snacks from Costco for the Avatar party you’re hosting at your place.
  • January 10: $50 for a new pair of 3D glasses — turns out you can’t drop them in a punch bowl and expect them to still work.
  • January 18: $300 for a new XBox 360 gaming system because you ran out of 3D movies to watch.
  • January 25: $200 for new games because it turns out the one your XBox came with kind of sucks.
  • January 31: $150 for cool Halo controller, with helmet.

For the record, you spent $3800 using your credit card. Now suppose the minimum payment is $114, which is 3% of your outstanding balance (this is normal), and that’s all you pay. The credit card company requires that you make this minimum payment to avoid penalties, but they don’t really explain about how you’ll be penalized anyway with interest.

Here’s what happens. Your balance the moment the $114 is received by the bank will not be reduced to $3800 — $114 = $3686 as you might expect. In fact what will happen is your balance will immediately have $66.49 in interest added to it.

So your actual new balance will be $3752.49.

But it gets worse. You see what happens is that all your purchases starting with the very first one were interest-forgiven until the moment you didn’t pay the full amount. At that point what the bank does is they subtract your payment from the earliest purchases (in this case from the $2500 TV purchase), then they convert the 20% interest to a daily rate, which works out to about 0.07% per day, and calculate interest on each purchase using the number of days since the purchase was made. And the clock keeps ticking, so that by the end of the next statement period, which would be March 1, another 28 days of interest accrues on the balances. That would be another $71.03 bringing your balance up to $3823.51, not including any purchases you make in February. And in case you didn’t notice, your $114 payment has been completely eaten up by interest after only 28 days, plus you now owe $23.51 more than you spent. That’s after only 1 month and having made a payment of $114!

It gets even worse, if you can believe it. The purchases you make in February will be interest forgiven until March 1, however because you have old purchases from January on your account now, any payments you make on March 1 are applied to those purchases first, starting with the oldest, and that means that your February purchases are that much harder to repay in full, which in turn means that they will start accruing interest the same way your January purchases did the moment they are not paid in full.

When you consider that on March 1 you have to pay for all your January purchases, plus an extra $23.51 before you even have a chance at paying for your February purchases, you can see how difficult this gets, and how quickly it can spiral out of control.

OK. So lesson number one is always pay your balance in full. It’s the most important lesson about credit cards. So important that if you can’t do it, you should not be using your credit card at all. You will quickly max out your credit limit and then lose the ability to use it for purchases, and simultaneously be saddled with huge interest charges that you’ll have to manage.

At this point many people say that credit cards are evil and they should not be used. “If you don’t have the money to pay for something don’t buy it” they say. “Always use cash” is the motto for these people. They make a lot of sense, but they are wrong. Further, not only are they wrong, they are for the most part overpaying for their purchases!

You’ll have to allow me to explain that part. It seems to make no sense at all.

So here’s the deal. When a merchant decides they want to accept credit cards as a form of payment, they need to get a merchant account. They’ll generally rent a terminal from the bank to process the transactions. They also pay a merchant fee to the bank for every transaction, generally 2%-4% of the sale price, which means that they earn less on purchases paid for by credit card than they do on purchases paid for in cash. At the end of a day of business the bank will deposit the total for the credit card transactions less the merchant fees into the account of the merchant. So it costs the merchant money to accept your credit card, which is money they will do their best to build in to the price of the goods and services they provide, to the extent that they can without overpricing.

For most merchants this is a cost of doing business and though they may not like it they accept it for what it is because many customers will shop elsewhere if they can’t pay by credit card. It’s also part of the reason why some stores offer a discount if you pay in cash. Sure cash is harder to trace, but beyond that a merchant can afford to sell a product for cash at a lower price and still make the same profit or even slightly more if the offered discount is less than the merchant fee. So there’s a slight over-payment when you pay full price in cash for something that you could have used a credit card for, but it’s not really fair to categorize it that way since if you pay with a credit card that over-payment disappears and in either case you have received a good or service for the same price. So that’s actually not what I mean when I say people who pay in cash are overpaying.

The over-payment I’m referring to actually has nothing to do with the merchant. It’s really the points on the credit card that you miss out on when you pay in cash. Most credit cards today have some sort of points system attached to them whereby you accumulate points through purchases and then redeem them for merchandise or travel. For example earlier this year I paid for a return flight to Kelowna, BC and 4 nights in a hotel all with points.

Stop and think about that. The airline didn’t give the trip away. They can’t afford to. The hotel didn’t rent the room for free for the same reason. Both the airline and the hotel were paid by Visa. But where did Visa get the money? Not from me — I pay my statement in full so I never pay interest, which means Visa pays for my stuff then I give them the money back at the end of the month so they break even. Aside from my annual fee of $60, Visa is not making profit directly from me. The answer to where they get the money is the interest of other credit card holders mostly, merchant fees and annual cardholder fees. That’s $60 annually from me.

So what? Well let’s say in a year I spend $100,000 on Visa on some list of goods and services, and someone else spends $100,000 in cash on the same list. At the end of the year my wife and I go to Vegas and stay at The Venetian, all on points, a trip which would cost around $3000 in airfare and hotel. Mr. Cash does the same, but pays cash. They have now spent about $103,000 or so, but I’m at $100,060 (remember to add my annual fee) and we’ve gotten the exact same stuff. If you think a little more about it, if I spent $100,000 on Visa then the merchants where I shopped paid 3%, or $3000 of that in merchant fees. There’s the money for the trip. But the important part is Mr. Cash spent $103,000, and I spent $100,060

See? The cash payer overpaid.

Of course, if you don’t pay your balance in full each month all bets are off. In that case you would be paying for my trip to Vegas. And nice as that is, I don’t expect you to do it.

The moral is, put everything you possibly can on a credit card with a points system. Pay all your bills with it. Buy a car with it! But always always always pay your balance in full (if you can’t pay your balance don’t buy the stuff). You’ll be surprised at the “free” things you get and none of those things would come to you if you pay in cash.

Thanks for reading,

Rich

Sometimes, the Door Is Down the Hall

Today my blog is about one of the most important things I’ve learned as a teacher, and specifically as a teacher of math. I’m going to start with a story about a kid I tutored for a while, many years ago.

When I was younger and just starting to realize I had a passion for math and for teaching, I firmly believed that anyone could understand math and be good at it. Some people took to it more readily than others, but I was certain that given enough time and effort, every single person could excel.

Then I met Lief (not his real name).

Lief came to me when he was in grade 6, and our first tutoring session was about math questions involving time. The question we worked on was something like “Harry leaves home at 12:05 pm and arrives at his destination at 1:30 pm the same day. How long did the trip take?”. Lief was really struggling with the question, but I knew that I could explain it in such a way that he would not only be able to determine the correct answer he would fully understand how we did it and be able to answer many more similar questions. As my students would say, I have mad skillz when it comes to explaining math.

Boy was I wrong. I spent an hour with Lief and I used all my powers of teaching and explaining to no avail. Strewn about us were diagrams, pictures of clocks, number lines, a watch and even part of a model Volkswagen Beetle (don’t ask me why, I don’t remember). Lief just could not understand what the question was asking and why the answer was 1 hour 25 minutes (see how I threw that in there so you’d know if you got it right? 😉 ). I learned a valuable lesson that day.

Some people just aren’t wired for math. And that’s totally OK of course. Contrary to popular opinion, math is not a critical life skill. Aside from people like me I can’t think of a single person that needs to be able to complete the square of a quadratic function given in standard form in order to determine the coordinates of the vertex of the parabola. Proof? You most likely have no idea what in the world I was talking about there and I bet you do just fine. I know at least that you own some sort of electronic device capable of connecting you to the internet. That says something.

So why is this blog titled “Sometimes, the Door Is Down the Hall”? What am I talking about, you ask? Well you wouldn’t be the first to ask that. Allow me to explain.

Where I live in Ontario, Canada, students attend high school for four years — grades 9 through 12. During that time, in order to be awarded their high school diploma, they must successfully earn three credits in math. For most students, that means a grade 9, grade 10 and grade 11 credit, though some do grade 9, grade 10 and grade 12. It means that math is optional in grade 12, if all you want is a high school diploma. If you want a post-secondary education however, like college or university, you will most often need to take math in all four years of high school, and also be sure to choose the right math courses for your intended post-secondary program.

At each grade, there are choices of which math course to take. There are different paths and they don’t all lead to the same place. For example, a student who intends to study math or science at university will take what’s called “Academic” math in grades 9 and 10, then “University prep” math in grades 11 and 12. Conversely a student who intends to go to college to learn a trade will likely take “Applied” math in grades 9 and 10, then “College prep” math in grade 11 and maybe also in grade 12, depending on the requirements of the college program. Some students take what’s called “Essentials” math in grades 9 and 10, then “Workplace” math in either grade 11 or grade 12. These students are either not planning to attend a post-secondary institution or else are planning to go into a field that has nothing at all to do with math.

Phew! So that was kind of boring to read, right? But if you read it you may have noticed the glaring flaw in the system. A student must decide on a career path in grade 9. When they are 14 years old. Actually they have to pick their grade 9 courses when they are still in grade 8, so they and their parents have to make the call when the student is 13 years old. Who the heck knows what they want to do with their lives at the age of 13? When I was 13 I wanted to look at girls, play video games, eat steak as an afternoon snack and look at girls. And then look at girls. I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do with my life. As a matter of fact now, at 43, I still don’t know what I want to do with my life (except for the looking at women part — I still do that and am lucky to have a wife that is exceptionally fun to look at). But I do know that I am happy with what I’m doing right now. Maybe that will change, maybe it won’t. But the key to my happiness is that I am doing something I am good at and that in turn makes me good at it. Read that last sentence a few times. It seems confusing but it isn’t. Try doing something you suck at for a long time. Keep telling yourself that you’ll get better if that makes it seem worthwhile. But I think you’ll find out that when you’re not good at something you are miserable doing it and then you are not good at it.

So how does this manifest in high school? Well it may seem obvious that since very few 13 year old kids have any clear idea about what they want to do when they finish high school — let alone as a career — that they choose the option that keeps all the doors open. In Ontario, that means that they will usually choose grade 9 academic math, because if they don’t they are closing the door to a post-secondary program that requires math. They do it again in grade 10, 11 and even in grade 12. I can not begin to count the number of students I have taught who have struggled mightily in math who then sign up for the hardest math course the following year because they don’t want to close doors. I’ll illustrate with an example. Good ol’ Hanz.

You might remember Hanz from “Steer With the Skid”. Hanz is a hard-working kid who does not have a lot of natural ability in math. By not a lot I mean he’s terrible at it. And please, before you object and say nobody who works hard can be terrible at something, look around. Some people are wired to be awesome at certain things and terrible at others. Some kids are born athletes, some are born artists, some are born mathematicians and some are born poets. You can improve your abilities in almost anything but that doesn’t mean you can excel in almost anything. Personally, as hard as I might have trained, I would never have been an Olympic sprinter. My legs are too short and I don’t have the reflexes. I’ve made peace with it.

So back to Hanz. Hanz doesn’t want to close doors, so he takes Calculus in grade 12. Currently in Ontario the course is actually called Calculus and Vectors. It’s the two hardest math topics in high school grouped together in one spectacular ride. Hanz has been miserable in math class ever since grade 9. He works hard, and puts in the time, but the most he can muster are grades in the 60’s, and it eats him up. His hard work is constantly rewarded with what he considers to be mediocre grades. He’s miserable because he’s convinced that he can’t be successful in life unless he’s successful in math and his definition of successful in math is marks in the 90’s, something he’s never been able to do. In trying so hard to keep a door open, Hanz has missed the fact that for him, there is no door marked “math”. He can’t see that if a program requires Calculus and he takes it and earns a 51% he won’t get in anyway. It’s a fruitless exercise. Yet every time I talk about this with Hanz or his dad Franz, they both insist that Hanz has to stay in Calculus so that he can keep his doors open. That’s when I shake my head and say “Sometimes, there is no door. Walk down the hall.”

See, if Hanz could recognize that there is no “math” door for him, he would be compelled to walk down the hall and see what other doors there are. If Hanz would spend more time in situations where he has natural strength, he’d know what those doors are and what lies beyond them, and he’d be so much happier. Unfortunately it’s extremely difficult to convince Hanz of this, and he spends all his energy working at something he was not wired for, spiraling further and further into self-loathing and often depression. I’ve seen it many times. I’m not exaggerating.

Now please, before you go off wondering how I can call myself a math teacher and be so willing to write kids off, understand that’s not what I am saying. I teach all levels of math. I am just as happy teaching someone like Hanz how to plan a family budget and the evils of credit card interest as I am teaching him how to take the derivative of a sinusoidal function that has been composed with the square of a logarithmic function in order to determine the instantaneous rate of change on the curve at the place where it intersects with a given exponential function. I work just as hard either way, and my reward is always Hanz’s success. It just pains me to see kids like Hanz convinced that they will end up “homeless under a bridge” (this is a saying my students have when they decide they are going nowhere in life) if they can’t do the derivative question. Honestly though, how many people can? And why on earth would most people need to? The derivative question is an exercise in abstract thought that is beautiful in its way, and critical for people going into a field where they have to solve high level math or science problems all the time, but it’s not the definition of intelligence or success.

Students like Hanz often ask me what courses they should choose when they are picking for the following year. I always say the same thing.

Me: “What are you good at?”

Student: “Well I’m good at <insert non-math or science discipline here> but that doesn’t get you anywhere so I need to take <insert completely inappropriate math or science course here>.”

Me: “Why would you take something that makes you so miserable?”

Student: “Because I need it to be successful. I need to keep my doors open.”

At that point I generally ask them how they intend to become successful in a field that requires them to be good at something that makes them miserable. They really never have an answer for that. Except for the door thing. My advice then is for them to take courses they enjoy, and that they excel in. Happy people who excel at what they do are always successful. Find one and ask them. You’ll see what I mean.

Thanks for reading,

Rich

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