Saturday, April 15, 2017

The Antidote To The Naperville North Pressure Culture

GAT education seems to have reached the crisis point at Naperville North high school.  GAT education is formerly defined as the race to get into the right Kindergarten program (in Chicago) or early elementary school gifted and talented program (outside of Chicago).  It continues with annual testing, leading to high school AP courses, and finally culminates with college applications.   Unbeknownst to the petitioners from Naperville North, it actually continues on to graduate school applications, job applications, and tenure track publishing.  Here is the petition.

Since my blog is unique among all publications in that I think everyone should be gifted, I'm probably ground zero for pressure.  In fact, I live in a completely pressure free environment.

The petitioner gets pretty close to the ultimate answer near the bottom of the petition by putting forth but not answering this question: And start treating us like people, not GPAs or test scores. Start letting us choose how we we wish to be defined. Start helping us find our dreams, and give us the tools we need to achieve them. Start understanding our priorities instead of implementing yours. Start defining success as any path that leads to a happy and healthy life. Start teaching us to make our own paths, and start guiding us along the way.

The petitioners are in high school, and are more than old enough to take responsibility for their own lives, so I'm treating that as a question to be answered.  No more spoon feeding, no more hand holding.  Here's the recipe for success.  You own all of your decisions and you are the only ones who will be stuck with the outcome.

For starters, you need to put things into perspective.  Here is a little perspective I've accumulated in the years after college when I finally decided to get serious about my own education.

  1. When I was in graduate school at the University of Chicago and Northwestern University, I was amazed at the diversity of the backgrounds of my fellow students, and by diversity I mean academic diversity.  The majority of them came from odd ball colleges spread throughout the country.  Some did well in college, some did not.  In my case, I took a single AP course at a fairly average high school in the state that was ranked 49th out of 50 states in education.   Only one year in college did I bother to get above a B average.  It was a good college, but not a great college.  Finding success is not a race.  If you blow it in high school and blow it in college, the race is not over, it is just beginning.
  2. I had to drive along the North Shore to get to and from my second job.  (Before this, I worked in public accounting, which, unless you really like public accounting, is a job you get because your dad expected you to get a job after graduating from college.)  As I drove to a job I actually liked, I wondered if everyone in the world but me lived in a $20 million house.   This is the fallacy of perspective, the same fallacy that makes you wonder if everyone goes to Stanford or everyone takes AP courses and likes them.  (The answer is 99% do not in both cases.)
  3. I recommend everyone read Julie Child's biography or wiki.  She was a smashing success and finally found her calling at age 40, which in the eyes of high school students, is one small step short of the grave.  This should be required reading for Naperville North.
  4. When I first realized that I actually enjoyed math, I was 23 years old, old enough to step back and realize that full time mathematicians, working together over a period of decades, created concepts and solved proofs that the AP Calculus student is given in problem #12 of their nightly homework and which she gets about 15 minutes to complete.  This is no way to study math.
  5. By the way, the part of your brain in charge of making decisions isn't going to be fully developed until you're 25 years old, and the part of your brain that is making decisions right now is also the part in charge of emotional responses, so forget about defining your self or making your own decisions right now.  Your future self (the one with the working decision brain part) will be grateful if you don't put yourself on the path to graduating from Princeton University with a job offer from McKinsey.  
Where am I on the question at hand?  It's not a race, you don't have to be stellar right now to win in the end, and AP courses are a really lousy way to get there.  Also, taking tests are the opposite of learning, which I'm not going to go into because it would take a much longer article.  Many say that grades and tests are the enemy of learning, and these people are right.  

But you want to follow your dreams and you want to be successful, so let me plod on.  The education system works really well for a minority of students.  Stanford is looking for this group now for undergraduate positions.  Stanford will be looking to fill the rest of the seats in a graduate class among students who take their time getting their acts together.  If you are under pressure in high school, you are not in the first group, you are in the second group.  What ever path you take to get to success, it is going to involve many many many hours of your own hard work.  The trick for the 2nd group is not to do it all at once, certainly not when you're sitting in AP Calculus, and to do it in such a way that it doesn't seem like drudgery.

I'll warn you right now that most people in the second group get distracted along the way by the fulfillment of being a hard working parent, the satisfaction of helping others, of being the guy at work that others can count on to solve their personal problems, or even, gasp, doing something really rewarding and valuable that doesn't pay a lot of money.  Assuming that you don't get distracted, the rest of this article is the secret to succeeding without really trying.

Secret #1:  The primary evidence that you are learning something is that you are totally confused. Being comfortable with your own confused bafflement is the key to learning.  If you are not totally confused, then you are not learning.  If you are not comfortable being in the dark, progress is going to be elusive.

Secret #2:  The secret to success for successful people is that they realize that there is no time limit. Confusion and bafflement simply means that they have to read something 3 times, slower, over a longer period of time, with lots of snack breaks for thin people and lots of walking breaks for us more chubby people.  You're conditioned in grade school to do things quickly with lots of memorization, but in high school, you need to think more, pondering at the single word level.  Once you have approached academic material with no time limits for 6 to 12 weeks, you'll start to pick up the skills of brilliant people, who figure out what needs to be read and what needs to be skipped.  If you try to concentrate through everything, you'll miss these tricks.  As a side note, the SAT is full of these tricks.

Secret #3:  Make mistakes to the point where you embrace your own shortcomings, incompetence and ineptitude.  In  middle school, mistakes are at the level of a 70% on a math test.  At the high school level, mistakes are at the level of a B or C in a course.  If you get upset with mistakes, learning and progress will end.  If you are OK with mistakes, you will just try harder the next time.  You will eventually look back 10 years later and realize that those who shrugged off mistakes were the ones to eventually succeed, and those who panicked every time something didn't turn out perfectly were the ones who failed.  If you don't believe me, do a quick internet search on Angela Duckworth, or make your parents read her book on Grit.  This should also be required reading for high school.

Secret #4:  Once you learn the first 3 secrets, you're ready for the ultimate secret to succeeding without really trying.   This is equivalent to cheating.   It applies to everything, but I'm just going to state it in the context of AP Calculus.  Here it is.  It get's it's own line because it's so important:

Take it twice.

Unless you have 2 extra hours every night for AP Calculus, which you don't because you have other courses, you're not going to have enough time to learn the material the first time.  It will be confusing, and you'll make mistakes.  This is a pressure causing situation.  The second time you take it, it will start to make sense and you can fill in the gaps in your learning.  The second time, you'll actually look pretty darn smart, like you belong in the course on your way to college.  Both times, you'll have a lot more time to learn and it will be a lot less pressure filled.  If there are 6 months in between the first and the second time, your subconscious brain (the other 95%) will help a lot by organizing things and doing some work on its own without you realizing it.

Now it's decision time.  I just outlined the path to success by doubling the most painful experience in high school for some of you.  Twice the work, twice the pain.   Do you want it that badly?  Or will you take a B or C and defer decisions about graduate school to catchup work after college?  Your emotional center in the brain is perfectly capable of making this decision because you will win either way, unless you get distracted at some point between here and there.

If you do choose to take AP Calculus twice, here are three further tips.  First, buy the book and do it on your own.  Don't worry about mistakes.  Don't check the solutions.  (OK, you can check occasionally, but it's not about how many you get right.  You're just reinforcing your bad attitude about mistakes.)  Second, do it way before you have to take it in school.   Like a year before. At worst your will take it the summer before you're expected to take it as a Junior or Senior.  Finally, don't tell anyone you did it on your own.  Just let them sit in awe of how bright you are.
By the way, doing work on your own ahead of time in a single class like math has 2 other benefits. Most importantly, it gives you room to breath in your other classes.  As a side benefit, by doing this you will have chosen to put education #1 on priority list and this decision will pay off down the road.

If you already suffered through a C in AP Calculus and you think this advice is too little too late, it's not.  Find a community college that teaches Calculus, take it again, and put that on your college application.  There are those in the admissions department who think like me and will appreciate it.

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