Three Wrongs That Are Now Right

When Robin and I got married, my parents told me about two sentences central to their long-loved marriage. “You were right. I was wrong.” They instructed me to say these two sentences any time Robin and I had a disagreement and she was right. I have said those two sentences quite a few times.

I was recently reflecting on a few things that I, and many others, have gotten wrong about education. Luckily, though, we have learned and are better educators and a better school for our learning.

1. Sit Still!

I remember saying these words to my first students when I was teaching grammar at the Town School for boys. I used to think that you can’t wiggle and learn. It was true for me – I am definitely not wiggling as I write this – and therefore I assumed it was true for all students. I was wrong. For many students they must wiggle to learn. Movement allows many students to focus. It is for this reason that we are providing new seating alternatives in our classrooms here at MTS. Thanks to a generous family foundation grant more and more of our students will have the opportunity to sit – or stand – in new ways further increasing their learning.  

You can wiggle and learn.

2. Using Your Fingers is NOT Doing Math

As a young math student I learned that using your fingers was “cheating.” I can actually picture myself keeping my fingers hidden well below the table as I took a quick count on the 9 times table. 9's without the fingers was hard. Well, I was wrong. Joe Boaler, a Stanford professor summarize the research saying: “Stopping students from using their fingers when they count could, according to the new brain research, be akin to halting their mathematical development. Fingers are probably one of our most useful visual aids, and the finger area of our brain is used well into adulthood.” (This article by Boaler includes activities you can do at home to supplement math-strengthening finger-brain development).  

Having just learned this myself, I was thrilled to walk into a first grade math class and see Jen and Kevin modeling "counting on" using their fingers.  

Our Brains Think about Math Visually

3.  Look Me in the Eyes

“Look me in the eyes and tell me what you were thinking.” I have said this – or some close variant – on a number of occasions as I have worked with children through discipline situations.  A wonderful National Association of Independent Schools conference speaker – who despite my best Googling, I can’t name – helped me see that I was approaching the student in the wrong way.  Using video footage of childhood friends, the presenter proved that girls are likely to make eye contact when talking about sensitive or difficult matters. Boys, on the other hand, will sit side by side looking straight ahead, only glancing over at their friend occasionally, as if to confirm that the listener is still there. Brain scan research further showed that eye contact is more likely to shut a boy up, rather than encourage him to share.  If we want a boy to talk we should say, “Don’t look me in the eyes!”

This made so much sense to me. The most candid conversations I had with my parents were driving in the car. With the road flying by a sixty miles an hour, the driver was not going to look me in the eyes. That gave me permission to do the same. Now, both looking ahead, I was far more likely to talk. Knowing this, I was far more likely to either take a boy for a walk around campus when he had made a big mistake or pull up on the same side of the table, looking the same direction, if we were in an office.  

In all three of these cases, we can all say, “The researchers were right.  I was wrong.”  And, because we do that, our students are better served as they wiggle, use their fingers for math, and not look me in the eyes.

-Andrew Davis