Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Teaching Bravery

This summer, I have been participating in some workshops about computer science, in preparation for teaching a new class in the fall.  In one session, we were referred to the TED Talk video from Reshma Saujani, the founder of "Girls Who Code".  In the talk, she referred to work by Carol Dweck, and what she said about teaching girls to be brave, not perfect, resonated with me and what I have seen in math and computer science classes.

At one point in the talk, Saujani talked about boys' responses to problems: "There's something wrong with my program" versus girls' responses to problems: "There's something wrong with me."  This may be over-generalized, but it highlights how girls, and, I think, many underrepresented groups in STEM fields, respond to difficulties.  As a white male, I automatically belong to the "STEM Club", so any difficulties I experience are not part of who I am; the difficulties are part of my process.  Unfortunately, those belonging to other groups not part of the "STEM Club" may start to believe something is inherently missing in their make-up or that STEM fields are not for them.  Just as unfortunately, those of us in the club can also start to believe this.  And it's nonsense!

Students tell me all the time that they're not good at math, and it's just not true!  Just because you have to work at something or just because you don't understand an idea quickly does not mean you are not good at it, or that you shouldn't try it!  Much of math, computer science, life even! is figuring out the next step based on limited information.  And even when you figure out your next step, you have to realize that it might not be correct and you have to do it again, and THAT'S OKAY!  Perfection is not expected nor encouraged.  Growth and improvement and moving forward are.

I teach because I want to help students embrace the struggle, because in the end it's not the math (or English or History, or ...) concepts that are the most important.  (Yes, I know, that's what's usually being graded, which makes it important, and that's my current struggle.)  Some of what I hope my students take from my classes is a willingness to work hard in the face of challenge and to wrestle with difficulty cheerfully.  With these, math (and life!) are infinitely more enjoyable.

"Success is staggering from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm."