How “Below Average” Kills Dreams

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When I was in school, once or twice a year my family would receive an official report from the school district telling them about my performance on various metrics. I was reading at an advanced level, doing math at an above-average level, my PSSA (Pennsylvania’s then-terrible standardized test, which was recently replaced by it’s now-terrible Keystone Exam) scores were high, and so on.

At first, these reports made me happy and excited. This meant my work was being reflected in something that could be measured and, more importantly, meant that I wouldn’t have a school bureaucrat — “administrator” in public education-speak — breathing down my neck every spring before exams. Over time though, I realized something insidious about them, brought on by the disparity between my math and reading scores.

My math scores were still above average, but they were lower than my reading scores, and always had been since I could do elementary math. How could this be? I could read at a collegiate level and do formal logic, but I couldn’t learn math as well? I could do calculus, advanced statistics, physics, and chemistry, but a standardized test told me I could still improve on its standards.

Consider the ways in which I learned the fundamentals of each:

Reading — While my parents read to me when I was little and I engaged in language-related activities when young, I remember spending day-in-and-day-out playing video games in my free time on my family’s old Apple computer. Some of these games were primarily operated via images — drag-and-drop, painting games, picture games — but some used text. They didn’t use high-level text, but made use of text in the story and throughout the plot to move the game along. Many could be played without making the text out, but reading would make it much easier and enjoyable. Over time, I simply picked up how to read from increasingly-complex video games (and later, books).

Math — While I did do some math in video games and could learn addition and subtraction by it easily, most of my introduction to math came in school and at times when I would have rather been learning about taxonomies or geography. Once division was introduced — and the increasingly convoluted ways of teaching it that schoolteachers like to use — I was largely lost. I came to view math, something once seen in video games as a fun challenge, as work. I didn’t want to do it, and it was the bane of my evenings.

In time, I ended up enjoying math, but only through the freedom to use it in clubs and extracurricular events (e.g., music activities, physics activities, statistics, etc.) that I derived meaning from. While reading and writing came naturally to me and were the bedrocks of the things I enjoyed doing, math was different. It would have come to me in time naturally, but was forced earlier than I had wanted to learn it.

Juxtapose this further with logic. Formal and symbolic logic look like math. There are equations and problem sets, and logic is ultimately the foundation of math. I have and had no problem learning logic. I picked it up as a side-project my senior year of high school and have enjoyed it since.

How could this be? How could I engage with two strikingly similar fields in very different ways?

Consider the following quotation from Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society:

Most learning is not the result of instruction. It is rather the result of unhampered participation in a meaningful setting. Most people learn best by being “with it,” yet school makes them identify their personal, cognitive growth with elaborate planning and manipulation.

When learning reading or logic or geography or history or civics or science — anything not based on long division — I found ways to incorporate it into games or pretend stories I would draw up in my mind or in video games. Even logic was something I did because I thought philosophy was interesting and I wanted to learn more about it.

Math, meanwhile, was taught as, “first you need addition, then you need subtraction, then you need multiplication, and now division…and now long division,” (with a math teacher of mine even playing up the difficulty of long division for elementary schoolers). Problems could only be solved and given points if you “showed your work” and did the work in the way the teacher wanted. Even if you arrived at the correct answer through your own devices or through “mental math,” points were deducted because it “isn’t the right way.”

It is no wonder that young me and so many young children like myself grew to resent math. We were denied the opportunity and time to engage with it in a meaningful setting where we could “be with it,” and were forced to learn it in the way specified for arbitrary reasons.

(Aside: this is why complaints about the ridiculous ways in which Common Core-based textbooks teach math should be taken seriously. When children are taught that problems can only be solved correctly in abstruse ways with counter-intuitive reasoning, they’ll likely internalize that their own ways of naturally solving them are wrong and that they are wrong for having them.)

And I’m not alone. Consider at the other end of the spectrum, the Sudbury Valley School in Framingham, MA doesn’t tell students, “Maybe you should learn X,” because that pressures them into an environment where they don’t derive their own meaning as readily from the experience of learning.

Some students at the school start reading at age 6, some at 7, some at 8, some at 9, and some even at 11. By age 15, all the students read at the same level and are no worse off for it. The girl who didn’t read until age 11 may come to love reading, and may make a career out of working in writing. While others were reading ahead of her by age, she wasn’t pressured into feeling bad or wrong for not doing the same.

In traditional, standardized schools, the illiterate 10 year old would be put in remedial classes, kept away from peers, and told that she has to go to “special education” classes because she doesn’t read at a level the teachers and bureaucrats have chosen is right for her age. It is likely that she’ll come to resent reading, and will forever lag behind other students in it. She’ll read books and view each sentence as work to be overcome, not an engagement that flows effortlessly from the first to the second and onward. Even though she would have likely been fine if simply left to her own devices, the school sets her up for self-doubt, shame, and potential failure.

This may be an extreme case, but even telling or nudging a young person, still feeling their way and passions about the world, “Maybe you should spend more time on X,” or “Why don’t you learn Y?” or, lyingly, “It would be so fun to learn Z! Don’t you think?” sets them up for self-doubt if their response, after learning it, is “Maybe I shouldn’t have learned X,” or “Z isn’t that much fun, what must be wrong with me?”

A better solution is to let go of the anxiety of being “below average.” “Below average” at 11 means nothing unless compared to what happens at age 15, 17, 25, 35, and onward. Telling a child she is “below average” or even “below expectations for herself,” doesn’t inspire her to work harder — it makes her question her relationship to the schooling at hand and associate that question with true, real, valuable learning.

The fact of the matter is that different people learn things at different times and in different ways. By attaching “right” to how most people decide to learn something (or force themselves to do it because of schooling), we label those who do it other ways that they are “wrong,” and start to close the doors for them to “learn by being ‘with it.'”


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