Being cool sucks, or everyone’s a geek

I have spent my entire summer learning.  I have been reading a ton of blogs, taking classes, reading books, visiting the radiation department in a hospital.  It has been great!  I get in this mode where I binge on information.  I’ll read one article, which will set me off on a several hour journey where my mind is in overdrive and I can’t read fast enough to satisfy my now apparent hunger for information.

What I like even more about this is how much more fun and easy this is as an adult.  Let me explain by contrasting with a teenage mind.

You can find this in the brain research, or if you’re very introspective you can recall this about yourself.  As a teenager, when I learned something new it went into my brain as “this new thing.”  There were no connections between “this new thing” and what I’ve learned before, unless it was made explicit for me.  That could be from a teacher pointing out the connection, or a question leading me to that connection, or an experience.  Did you notice how “this new thing” has dink in common with “that old thing?”  Point is, as a teenager I would learn something new and LATER connect to previous knowledge.  (it’s pretty obvious that this is our jobs as teachers)

But as an adult, I don’t learn brand new things!  Everything I learn is a branch from something I know already.  Many times this is due to exploring something deeper based on my own curiosity, which will immediately make anything I learn a branch off previous knowledge.  I am made aware of this when I am talking to people at parties about what they do.  There is an awkward first minute or two where I am struggling to keep up, then I’ll ask or they’ll volunteer the connection.  “Well it’s similar to BLANK.”  “Oh!  I know about blank!  How is it different?”

In both cases, once I had a starting place, I could keep adding on new information.  Even as a teenager, if I had a starting place I could tack on a ton of new knowledge, so long as I followed the path I saw ahead.  As an adult the path forward a little clearer (i know where to look now) and I know where I am!  Everything has a connection, and I’m never more than an arm’s length from comfortable knowledge.

Okay, so about how being cool sucks.

Every time I’ve tried to be cool, it meant either proudly proclaiming a lack of knowledge (“what is dungeons and dragons”) or pretending to know something I didn’t (“yeah, they do sound like sonic youth mixed with velvet underground”).  And that makes it very difficult to learn what I want to learn.  If it’s not cool to learn too much about something, it’s like trying to go for a walk and having a cop stop you 1 block from your house in every direction.  Every time that I pretended that I knew something, I spent the entire time in an awkward space.  Like knowing that I’m in a pine forest, but not knowing if I’m in North America or Europe.

I want to communicate this problem in the clearest way possible to my students.  I feel like I had to actively fight the tendency of the school system to make me fit in, to make me learn what they wanted and not “waste my time” learning more.  And all of my classmates made it very uncool to geek-out and learn something really in depth.  But EVERYONE geeks-out on something.  Just because you geek-out on football and I geek-out on music and math doesn’t make you better than me.  It doesn’t make me smarter than you.

This is our* model for humans and learning.  Everyone wants to geek out on something.  So my job is to create a culture that removes most** of the inhibitions to geeking out.

our* – I can’t take all the credit, this has been an ongoing discussion with my wife

most** – well I don’t want everyone totally absorbed in their little world.

What does that final grade mean?

I have control on how a final grade is calculated – but not how it is used.

When my students leave my class, they’ll get one of five letters on their transcript.  It’s a secret code that is distilled from my teaching, their learning, their performance and the heavy thumb of my value system (do I count zeros, allow re-takes, grade homework?).

The really crazy part about this whole process is how that code gets shipped off to some college, scholarship, university or whatever.  They ship the code – but NOT THE KEY!  How crazy is that?

And to make it worse, they do their best to break the code based purely on assumptions!  Some people count a B in an AP class as more than an A in a regular class.  How do they know that?  I assume they treat all Algebra II grades as the same.  How do they know that?  They don’t.  It’s a huge assumption that leads to a loophole for students to game the system.  Some students have caught on to this, and they know it’s all about the letter grade until they finish their undergraduate degree.

I don’t think the problem is grade inflation – the problem is the grade is meaningless.

next – what this means for my grades