The importance of judgment

Amy Coney Barrett recently delivered a speech in which she pronounces poignant as “POIG-nunt.” (Here’s the clip.)

Mispronouncing a word doesn’t make you “dumb” or “less than” or anything of the sort. But it does suggest that you are not routinely engaged in vigorous discussions with brainy sorts. And that strikes me as a real problem for someone whose job relies on good judgment and access to a wide variety of perspectives, and whose job performance directly affects the well-being of many.

It’s not a guarantee.  But it’s a strong indicator. It’s hard to imagine that someone living a life of the mind, routinely debating or discussing with others, would get to age 48 without noticing a habitual mispronunciation of an 11th-grade word. It points to educational quality and more. A sort of dog whistle that gets blown for you. The only tricky part is noticing it when it happens.

This leads me to question her “fine legal mind” PR. Elitist? Sure, I’ll cop to that. Reading too much into one tiny thing? Maybe, sure. But what worries me is that maybe this is an early warning, a “canary in a coal mine.”

For my money, Amy Coney Barrett pulled back the curtain on something very important about her background and experience in the time it took her to say that single word.

What do you think?

(See also Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow.)

Learning vs education

Today Seth Godin posted:

Education is the hustle for a credential. It exchanges compliance for certification. An institution can educate you.

Learning can’t be done to you. It is a choice and it requires active participation, not simple adherence to metrics.

Learning is the only place to find resilience, possibility and contribution, because learning is a lifelong skill that isn’t domain dependent.

Most of the learning moments in our lives are accidental or random. A situation presents itself and if we’re lucky, we learn something from it.

I agree that learning is where it’s at, which is why we’re introducing a few new offerings in the coming weeks. If you’re on our mailing list, you’ll see those shortly. (And if not, let me know, and I’ll be happy to add you.)

But I also think that if you can rack up an educational credential as part of the learning process, it’s worth going for it. And that’s why we also continue to help students prepare for standardized tests, math competitions, and classwork.

To sum up: It’s great if you join us because you want the STEM grades and the test scores. But once you’re here, it’s the learning that’ll really blow your doors off!

So… let’s get to it.

Math under pressure

This outstanding TED Talk by Barnard’s president is mainly about choking under pressure. But how interesting that the example Professor Beilock spends most time on is girls’ learning math.

One of the excellent points she makes so well is that there’s a difference between knowing how to do something, and being able to do it when the pressure’s on.  And as you have probably experienced yourself, the pressure is in some sense always on.

I’ve experienced this since my school days, and I’ve done my share of studying this issue and experimenting with various best practices. When it comes to preparation for math tests of any kind, I consider this issue to be of equal importance to actually learning math.

I know. It sounds like heresy. But I know it’s right. So we use a three-pronged approach to preparing for math tests and math competitions alike:

  • Learn the necessary math to fluency
  • Identify and resolve all your performance/execution issues (per the above)
  • Strengthen your ability to critically deconstruct and to creatively synthesize

We give equal weight to these keys to success, because we understand that it isn’t just about what you know. It’s also about what you can do, and how you feel when you do it.

 

Put a little math in your life!

Brian Greene makes the point about science, and it holds just as true for math: “We rob science education of life when we focus solely on results and seek to train students to solve problems and recite facts without a commensurate emphasis on transporting them out beyond the stars.”

Interested in communicating with a faraway friend without allowing anyone to eavesdrop on you? Of course you are; this problem affects a middle-schooler’s daily life, and yet it is also the basis for modern commerce: communicating your credit card number over the Net without allowing a thief to eavesdrop is a non-negotiable requirement for our economy. How is this problem solved? First, you try for a while. Then let’s talk about prime numbers and see what they can do for us.

Interested in taking a rocket to the moon? Well, if you want to drive a spaceship, you probably ought to understand how gravity works differently from your intuition when you’re far from Earth. Let’s talk about ellipses, and while we’re at it, let’s predict the next approach of Halley’s comet. (And if you’re a high-school sophomore or so, we can talk about inverse-square laws while we’re at it.)

What if we picked up a signal for an alien civilization on our radio telescopes tomorrow? Do you think they’d speak English? Not a chance. Let’s think about how we would communicate without a shared language, a shared culture, even a shared planet? Well, there’s one thing we have in common with any race advanced enough to send us a signal like that: they know math. Let’s think about how that might work…

One of the biggest rarely-asked questions in math is simply “why should I care?”

I love answering that one.