Sunday, October 27, 2013

There's Nothing Wrong With Being Mediocre at Math

I have mixed feelings about this poster. On the one hand, I really appreciate the contempt for laziness. I love the no-nonsense, kick-in-the-ass tone of it. I kind of want this poster on my wall. And there's a ton that I agree with here. "Struggling is good. It means you're learning something." Yeah!


"In order to learn anything you have to WANT TO LEARN ALL OF THE TIME."


Look, I want to learn stuff. I read for fun. I write for fun. I do math for fun. But do I want to do math all the time? Hell no. I spent today reading comic books and hanging out with family. It was great.

I know, guys. I read the fine print on this thing too. I know that our enemy here is "I'm really good at cramming" or "But I'm sooo tired this morning." But that's not what "ALL OF THE TIME" means, and that's up there in caps.

Anyway, that's not the part that really caught my attention.

"Don't be mediocre."

Well, why not? What's wrong with being mediocre at math?

I'm a mediocre runner. I'm a mediocre writer. I was a mediocre Physics student in college. I'm mediocre at most things that I do.

What's wrong with being mediocre?

I promise, I'm not trying to be a pain here, and I don't want to take this all too seriously. But should we really be telling our students that in order to learn something that it needs to be constantly on their minds? And should we really be telling students that there's no room for mediocrity in our classrooms?

We wouldn't tell kids not to be poor, or not to be dumb. So why would we abhor mediocrity?

At the very end of A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur's Court, the Yankee has massacred an army. He boasts:
"Reflect: we are well equipped, well fortified, we number 54. Fifty-four what? Men? No, minds."
In praising hard work, learning and the intellect, it's possible to elevate the mind and dismiss being normal. We can find a certain kind of communal disgust for just being plain old OK at things, and end up teaching lessons to kids that we don't mean to teach. (Like: "Success in life is about finding something that you're especially good at," something that caused me a ton of psychological stress in college.)

You can enjoy math, even if you aren't great at it, right? And you can learn something, even if you're not obsessed with it, right? You don't need to be a mind, but you can be a man and a woman and you can have a mind and a heart and all those other important organs of life.



  1. [...and end up teaching lessons to kids that we don't mean to teach. (Like: "Success in life is about finding something that you're especially good at," something that caused me a ton of psychological stress in college.] <---I love and completely agree with this statement.

    Sometimes I think I get too obsessive about my worry over the unintentional things we teach kids with our languages choices and, often, off-handed comments. Then I think about all the kids using the feminine as a derogatory b/c other adults around them are careless with language that's culturally ingrained.

    Granted, I have no good answers here. I think this dilemma is one of the reasons people keep writing books on parenting--we don't know where to draw the line between a "no-nonsense, kick-in-the-ass tone" and pushing too hard in a classroom of non-uniform kids. Perhaps thinking before speaking and trusting folks to know thine kiddos is the best we have.

    1. Yeah, that might be the best we have. And I bet that Zach's kids really need that kick in the ass.

      But, you know, it's one thing to worry about the language that you use, and another thing to worry about the poster that explicitly states your values. I'm with you about being too obsessive about worrying about unintentional things, but a poster stating your values is a very intentional thing.

      Anyway, I don't want to pick on Zach. I'd bet he's making the right call for his kids. But, in all of the contexts in which I live, "Don't be mediocre" is dangerous and unrealistic advice.

  2. Obviously most people are mediocre.

  3. Okay, I agree with all of your points, but if you're going to push back you're going to have to deal with my counter-push.

    What would you put on the poster?

    1. Now there's a tough question. To be honest, posting a sign like this isn't really my style anymore. One time I had something like this in my classroom, but it felt untrue to my personality to have big commands posted on the wall. The kids sort of mocked it, and since then I've tried to be more subtle (read: often inconsistent and sloppy) in the ways that I set classroom norms.

      Anyway, I'd keep "If you are not struggling, you are not learning." It's a perfect reminder, both for students and teachers.

      Honestly, I might stop there. But, if we really want to have three ass-kicking mottos for kids, I might try to make sure that they are mutually ass-kicking for me and the kids.

      So, maybe:

      1. "If you are not struggling, you are not learning." You should be failing, and I should be making sure that you fail.
      2. "Learning shouldn't be boring." You should be trying to find things interesting, and I should be trying to show you interesting things.
      3. "We control our lives." You and I don't get off the hook for being tired, lazy or angry. If I want class to go better, then I'll work harder on our lessons. If you want to learn more, then you should work harder.

      I think it would be a ton of fun to hear other people's learning slogans.