Tuesday, March 17, 2009

When dumb stuff makes you dumb

It's a no-brainer that, in the long run, dumbed-down stimuli (as in a dumbed-down curriculum) dumbs everyone down.

But lately I've been thinking about how this true even in the short run. That is, when our immediate environment is under-stimulating, we become dumber then and there.

I first started noticing this after I had kids. For all the intellectual and emotional stimulation that children bring, there are also those deathly boring routines where you're trying to get your five year old to put her empty bowl, spoon, and cup in the sink, put on her jacket and backpack in that order, look where you're pointing when you tell her where her bike helmet is, and put on her hat on before she puts on her helmet.

On those situations, I find myself fumbling for words. I say "plate" instead of "bowl," "counter" instead of "sink," and "helmet" instead of "backpack." I'm so bored by these exchanges that my brain seems to shut down.

On the other hand, in a grownup conversation about math education, words seem to come easily. For example, I don't confuse "algorithm" with "algebra" and "digit" with "decimal."

Speaking of math education, my daughter seems to experience a similar mental shutdown in her classroom. "School math is so hard," she keeps telling me.

"How can it be so hard," I ask, "When the stuff you're doing at home is so much harder, and you don't think that home math is hard?"

(She's in 2nd grade, doing 3rd grade Singapore Math at home, so we're talking about school problems like this 2nd grade Investigations Problem, as compared with home problems like this 3rd grade Singapore Math problem.)

"It's boring," she eventually clarifies.

Boring kids makes them dumb, it turns out.

But too many teachers don't recognize this phenomenon. Instead, its effects encourage them to keep things boring and easy. After all, if it takes my daughter, staring into space and pretending to be "thinking," half an hour to complete an Investigations problem like this one, then surely she can't handle anything more challenging--despite what her pushy, deluded, helicopter parents might claim to the contrary.


Mrs. C said...

Well, and I'm not *dumb,* but I had a hard time helping with homework my older children brought home. Adding from left to right??

Dividing... I can't even play the game they wanted to in Everyday Mathematics.

I do wonder which method is really harder in the long-run, the old-fashioned way or the EM way. With the EM way, it LOOKS like kids can do all this stuff earlier, but get some really big numbers and the methods break down. The old-fashioned way of adding, subtracting etc. takes longer to LEARN, but works with bigger numbers.


I think the ed. system just wants to make it look like they've done that job at an earlier age, blame the parents and kids for not "getting" it, and then turn and ask for more money from the voters.

Not that I'm a cynic or anything.

letsplaymath said...

Good point!

Your last link ("this one") is broken.

CassyT said...

Have you read The game of school: why we all play it, how it hurts kids, and what it will take to change it.

Talk about school making you dumb!

Catherine Johnson said...

Part of what you're talking about is the importance of maintaining proper "arousal" levels in the brain.

That's (one reason) why research on teacher effectiveness finds that "energetic" teachers who maintain a brisk pace are effective.

It's also (probably) why showing endless Powerpoints in darkened classrooms is a bad idea.

One last thing: ADHD is apparently being re-conceived to some degree as a problem achieving or maintaining proper arousal leves. (Thomas Brown's Attention Deficit Disorder: The Unfocused Mind is the book to read on this.)