The power of the nudge

My friend and colleague Jai Flicker just posted this lovely essay on the time he knew just what to say to a student to make a big difference. His point was that one’s attitude towards work matters a lot. I take away a different point: that there’s more to teaching than knowing the material and knowing how to teach.

Don’t get me wrong. I think that knowing the material and knowing how to teach are both higher bars than we give them credit for.  (“Knowing how to teach” is especially tricky, it turns out.) But if teaching is your career, then I think that those two important skills, while necessary, aren’t sufficient on their own.

Most teachers never studied Buddhist philosophy, Qigong, or Non-Violent Communication, but Jai sure did. I think it’s clear from even a casual interaction with Jai that part of what makes him an exceptional educator — his “special sauce” if you will — is his awareness of the effect of emotional state and perspective on outcomes.

For me, it might be focus on effective processes of creative thought (because of my experience in music performance and competitive puzzle-solving), or maybe my love of analogy.  Or my great fashion sense* — it’s hard to know these things about yourself.  (Indeed, I just asked a few trusted colleagues this question, and learned rather a lot.)

I sure know what it is in others, though.  For each of my students and for each of my professional colleagues, I know what makes him or her special — what special sauce each brings to a hurdle, from home schooling to playing first violin; from fearless honesty to boundless patience; from experience as a youth counselor to experience as a corporate executive.

It’s important because of the power of the nudge.  Any good educator can help you with the next step, but the right idea, at the right time, presented in the right way: this is what helps you make a huge leap instead of another small step.  Great educators try for the leap instead of relying solely on the step.

But how is that done? I think it takes three components, two obvious, and one not: being a good teacher and deep subject knowledge are the table stakes. But it’s outside experience that makes the difference.

Jai has his mindfulness practice; I have competitive puzzle solving; others have other sources of “special sauce.” That’s always been an important part of my teaching practice: “I teach people, not just math” is how I’ve tried to explain it.

And increasingly, that’s the basis for my referrals too: I’m looking to catalyze leaps, and that means knowing my network not just as professionals, but as people.  When they go to work, they bring their whole selves, and that’s why they get such better results.

*PS I actually have terrible fashion sense.

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Here’s my favorite one-session story.

Rachel and David came to me because Rachel, a straight-A student for years, just could not crack a B in her precalculus course. Nothing she did was enough; she kept getting docked too many points on tests; her motivation was faltering and so was her meticulousness.

It was apparent that Rachel was a mature and grounded student, and that David was an involved and supportive but not at all “helicoptery” parent.

We talked about the class itself, and the teacher in specific.  It came out that the teacher came of age in Soviet Russia towards the end of the Cold War. I know a bit about that culture, because it was a particularly noteworthy time in the history of math competitions, which I coach.

So Rachel and I talked a bit about that period, about the relentless focus on grit, drillwork, and obedience, about the aspects of those qualities that we value in our culture today, and about what a teacher who was a student during that period might bring to her teaching practice — what expectations she might have, and how she might gauge whether students are measuring up as they should.

We looked at one of Rachel’s recent tests through that lens, and instead of undeserved points lost due to unimportant minor mistakes, we both saw warning signs of a student in command of only part of the end-to-end process that leads to reliably correct answers.

About two weeks after that session, I called to find out why they hadn’t booked a second session, and the answer was a delight: it was because Rachel had only gotten an “A” on every homework and quiz since our meeting.

(I later helped her improve her SAT scores, but that’s another story.)

What the SAT tests

What the SAT tests

I can’t make this stuff up: three days after I reposted my 2012 essay in response to an article by a grown-up taking the SAT, Forbes published this article about — you guessed it — a (different) grown-up taking the (new) SAT. I can’t resist the karmically-ordained opportunity to comment.

First, let me address the assertion “it’s all about speed”: no controversy there; it’s completely correct. Though I would frame it as “the SAT tests fluency over surface knowledge,” it’s the same thing.  You can’t spend 30 seconds (i.e. an eternity!) trying to remember a formula on this test.

On a related point, let me just observe that this is a trait that the “revised SAT” — first given in March 2016 — shares with its primary competitor the ACT, but not with its predecessor (at least, not to this degree).

Next up: “The test is designed to trip you up if you work too quickly (and make) a careless error of a particular type.”
Also true.  The SAT is a test of meticulousness, and has been for over a decade.  Perhaps even for its whole history.

“Doing well on the SAT requires that you know the tricks of the test, and that you’ve memorized many formulas so that they come to mind instantly.”
Yes, but those are hardly “tricks of the test.” Knowing the formulas that they tell you to know is table stakes, nothing more.

“…they haven’t yet figured out how to construct good stats questions.”
That may be true, but the author’s example rings hollow: sampling only 117 people from a “large town” is simply not the same order of error as surveying a local restaurant on a Saturday to determine the population’s sports-watching preferences. After all, that restaurant either has the game on or it doesn’t; either way, there’s a clear sampling error, the cardinal sin of statistics.

“…there’s not a single question on any of the practice math SAT exams that I would call difficult.”
I’m probably supposed to debate this point, but there’s no sense in doing so, because he’s basically spot-on. At the core, this is the chief problem with the test, at least for top-tier students. Always has been, and it’s worse now than before. The test is simply not good at distinguishing very good students from great thinkers, nor very good thinkers from great thinkers.

But what college admissions needs more than to make the SAT optional (as the author advocates) is to replace it or at least supplement it with better tests of high achievement.  As the author himself points out, “they could go a long way towards a better test by simply giving students twice as much time. If that made the test too long, they could simply ask fewer questions.”

Right you are, sir. And it’s been done! That’s the very reason for which tests like the AMC12, USAMTS, and AIME (and to a lesser degree the Math 2 Subject Test) exist: to give truly outstanding students an opportunity to shine based on math ability rather than speed and meticulousness under pressure.


Take it like a grown-up

A few years ago, a 35-year-old took the SAT and wrote about the experience.

I responded with the essay below, which I think is relevant to most academic work, not just the SAT.

I posted the essay on Facebook, where a very interesting discussion ensued.

Forgive me if this offends:

Being scared of the SAT is an uninformed response to the serious and real issue of cultural test-mania (unless you are getting paid to write a funny article in which you aim to be uninformed, as in this case). The way you deal with the SAT is the same way you deal with any of the other problems you deal with as an adult: you learn about the most important ideas from a reputable source, you do the minimum necessary preparation, you make a backup plan in case you need to take it more than once, then you execute the plan.

I mean, seriously, taking the SAT cold is as smart as doing your taxes cold. For your taxes, you buy software, or you hire an expert, or you google some basic questions. Same applies here: the basic math facts you need fit onto a page. The reason for the 0.25 point penalty (and the way to use it to your advantage) takes three paragraphs to explain, tops. The fact that the essay comes first is well-understood to be a mind game (and again, one you can use to your advantage).

A little research, folks. That’s all it takes. The big bucks in private prep are spent by three categories of people: people who actually need every last point, people who need to save every possible minute, and people too lazy or afraid to search the web for basic information.

It’s honestly not rocket science. It’s wholly doable with some forethought. Treat it as such instead of freaking out. In other words, take it like a grown-up.

Math excellence for girls

From MIT and NBER, this just in:

“…almost all girls with the ability to reach high math achievement levels are not doing so.”  (Here’s the paper.)

The basic premise, which I believe in my bones to be correct, is that half of the very best math students in this country — the female half, by and large — do not participate in the ranking systems that serve to identify them.

The end result is a mess all around:

Good news, though: fixing the problem is as simple as raising awareness.  Any girl who has yet to finish 12th grade can participate in these competitions.  If you know a good candidate, send her to, to, or to this short video series on YouTube.