This blog was written by Jerie Shaw and originally published on her personal blog, The Level Up.
I graduated high school in 2007 with an A+ average. I have since graduated summa cum laude (a fancy Latin way of saying “I did pretty well”) from both a Bachelor of Arts and a Master of Arts degree at the University of Ottawa. Immediately after publishing my thesis, I began teaching courses as a contract professor at the University of Ottawa, ranging from second-year lecture-hall courses to fourth-year seminar-style courses. I’m good at my job, and – more importantly – I am absolutely, positively, in love with it.
I don’t intend this to sound “braggadocious”, I merely want to paint a picture, so you understand why going back to high school is, to put it lightly, an unconventional choice for somebody in my position. Let me tell you why I’m doing it.
I am an intellectually curious person. Like many people, I want to know why things are the way they are. It’s not enough to study rules, I have to know the principles behind them, the applications of them… otherwise, what’s the point? This intellectual curiousity has served me well. At the Master’s level and as a professor, academics are rewarded for asking big questions: sure, things are a certain way, but why are they that way? Have things always been that way? Could things be different? What would it mean if they were?
These are the questions that theses and research papers are borne out of. They’re the lifeblood of academics. They’re also the bane of elementary school math teachers.
I think, deep down, I loved math and science as a child. I wanted to know how things worked, I wanted to build and play with things, sort things, count things: really, what child doesn’t? It wasn’t until 6th grade that I decided I “didn’t like math”. While my 25-year-old mind is probably simplifying things, I think I can recall the exact moment that my 10-year-old self “tapped out” from the wonderful world of numbers.
We were learning how to divide two fractions by one another. There’s a very simple rule to do so, which I’m sure most of us recall from way back when – flip the second fraction around to create a reciprocal, multiply the first fraction by that reciprocal, then simplify the resulting fraction. The steps are represented here for this problem – divide 1/2 by 1/6:
- 1/6 is ‘flipped’ to become its reciprocal, 6/1
- Multiply 1/2 by 6/1
- First, multiply the numerators (1×6) to get 6, then multiply the denominators (2×1) to get 2, resulting in 6/2
- Simplify that fraction to 3/1, which is equal to 3
This is a staggeringly basic “rule”, but I couldn’t wrap my 10-year-old mind around it. It’s not that I didn’t understand the rule itself – I could divide fractions all day long if you asked me to – but I didn’t understand why the rule worked. Why does multiplying a fraction by another fraction’s reciprocal produce the same result as dividing those fractions by one another? Why can’t you simply follow the same process you follow when multiplying fractions (in other words, to simply divide the numerators by one another and the denominators by one another and simplify the result)? Why would you ever need to ‘divide’ a fraction by another fraction, anyway?
I was told, in no uncertain terms, that it’s “just the way it is” and to “stop asking questions”.
Explaining why mathematical rules work, admittedly, probably isn’t the forte of Grade 6 math teachers, and perhaps it shouldn’t be. Afterall, most other students seemed content to simply know that “the rule worked”. But for me, it killed the joy of math. If I couldn’t understand why something worked, or what the application of it was, I didn’t think it was worth knowing.
Thus began 10 long years of believing that math – and by extension, advanced science – was both “above me” (that is, that I wasn’t capable of understanding it, that I didn’t possess the talent or ability for it), and “below me” (that it was boring, not as meaningful or impactful as the big questions raised in history, philosophy, or politics).
By 9th grade (the beginning of high school in Ontario) I absolutely dreaded having to take the required math and science courses. I remember struggling immensely with them. Things seemed to come so easily to my “mathematically talented” friends, but I was always plagued by those two big questions – why, and to what end? I could memorize theorems and formulas and rules, but I found the experience distressing and headache-inducing. I was regularly chastised in my 9th grade math class for asking “too many questions” (many of which elicited giggles from my classmates).
At the time, I attributed this struggle to what most teenagers with self-esteem issues (which is to say – literally all teenagers) attribute their struggles to – some personal deficiency. If trying to wrap my head around these basic concepts that other people seemed to accept so easily stressed me out, if I continually found math really difficult even when others didn’t, it must be because I’m bad at it. Much better, I thought, to focus my efforts on courses I was good at – the Arts.
In Ontario, there are a small slate of required courses (mostly at the 9th and 10th grade level), then you get to select “elective” courses in your 11th and 12th years. Many high school courses come in two flavours – like a video game’s difficulty setting. The “hard” courses oriented toward students heading to university were labelled the “U” option, the “easier” courses for students heading toward college, the “C” option.
After 9th grade I took only C-level math, and stopped taking it as soon as the courses became optional. I loaded my schedule with elective U-level arts credits – Media Studies with Mr. Campbell, who sparked my love affair with Communications; American history with Mr. Doyle, who bestowed upon me my prized VHS copy of “Dr. Strangelove”; Drama and Nutrition (two separate courses, I should say) with Mme. Viau, who brought me out of my shell by casting me as the lead in a school play, and also taught me how to make a mean apple crisp; and World Religions with Mr. Hurd, who gave me perhaps the greatest gift of all, for he taught (and continues to teach) all his students how to meditate in the Buddhist tradition.
While peers spent their extra-curricular time preparing for math competitions or science fairs, or – the gold standard – competing in intramural sports, I spent my lunch hours practicing with the school trivia team, debating the finer points of Noam Chomsky’s media theory with Mr. Campbell in his classroom while he strummed on the acoustic guitar, and practicing the kissing scene for that school play with my co-lead a few more times than was absolutely necessary. I was, in short, an “Arts Nerd”.
Let me first begin by saying that I wouldn’t trade these experiences for anything. My education in the Arts, from high school through my MA, has made me a better citizen of the world. Having a breadth of what I consider “general knowledge” has given me a versatility that is now one of my greatest strengths as an academic and educator. More importantly, it’s pretty handy in a game of Jeopardy.
However, I have recently realized that something is missing.
Being a curious person with a passionate love of learning and a desire to understand the world, I have always asked questions (sometimes incessantly, to the frustration of those around me). One of the beautiful things about curiousity-driven inquiry is it isn’t bound within the confines of labels like “math”, “science”, “philosophy” or “psychology”. Indeed, many of the biggest, most interesting questions have answers that lie somewhere in the intersection of all these areas and more.
In my effort to understand the world, I have unwittingly read works of popular science/mathematics/technology, without consciously recognizing it: Chris Hadfield’s An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, Paul Davies’ How to Build a Time Machine, Steven Levy’s In the Plex, John Gribbin’s Stardust. Surely these books couldn’t be about “science” or “math”, because science and math are boring and hard and these books are anything but!
My taste in popular culture began to tend toward the technological and scientific: I voraciously read science-fiction, became obsessed with television programs like Battlestar Galactica, and pored over the work of nature documentary filmmaker and narrator-extraordinaire David Attenborough. My Twitter feed became a who’s who of STEM-celebs: Chris Hadfield, Bill Nye, Neil deGrasse Tyson (to name a few).
I watched live feeds of NASA Spacewalks, zoo-animal births, and climate change debates (not much of a ‘debate’ to be had, it turns out, but good fun nonetheless). I began asking questions of my university colleagues who were scientifically inclined: I remember one taxi ride with an engineering professor who, after being instructed to “teach it to me like I’m 5 years old”, eloquently and accessibly explained the concept of “lift” and how airplanes remain in flight and don’t just drop out of the sky. She has since become one of my closest colleagues and mentors. My advice to you – if you ever find somebody who can explain the complex mechanics of lift to an Arts major over the course of a 3-minute taxi drive, they’re somebody you definitely want to keep in your life.
I began to shift my teaching expertise in the direction of my new-found interests. I taught guest lectures on how technology has changed our interpersonal communication habits, collective intelligence and the Internet, and advancements in robotics and artificial intelligence. In my own courses, I began emphasizing the impact of technology and other advancements in the STEM world on the subjects we were exploring.
I memorized the planets in the solar system. I learned basic computer programming. I drove to Houston, Texas and spent a glorious afternoon at the Johnson Space Center. I went to the MIT Media Lab and marvelled at the brilliant and joyful applications of math and science that I saw there. I began to feel that, not only were scientists and mathematicians asking all the most important questions and solving all the most important problems, they were also having the most fun. I turned my attention to these exciting questions and problems, a veritable mixed-bag of “hows” and “whys”:
- Are we alone in the universe?
- How does the Internet work?
- Will we ever be able to create an artificially intelligent humanoid machine capable of independent “thought” or “emotion”?
- How do human acquire language at such an incredibly fast pace as infants, and yet not as adults?
- Where did the world come from?
- Is time travel possible?
- How does the human brain actually work?
As fast as my fingers could Google, I had more questions.
And that’s when I realized it – I was in love with math and science. I felt like a curious bystander pressing my face to the glass for the first time, peering into a beautiful world I was unprepared to understand, and always thought I didn’t care about anyway. “Look what they’re doing in there”, I imagine myself saying to another Arts major, “they’re asking the most profound questions a human being could possibly ask, and actually finding answers to them“. Holy shit… I want to do that.
But how could I? Not only was I completely in the dark about quantum mechanics, space travel, and neuroscience, I didn’t even know basic math.
For a long time, I resigned myself to the fact that, even though I now loved the applications of science and math, it would never be something I could do myself. After all, I had decided long ago that I was bad at math, that I simply didn’t have a talent for it. I have since discovered that this is an incredibly common belief among Communications majors – a huge majority of my students and colleagues have similar stories about feeling discouraged by math and science at a relatively young age. In his brilliant work of popular science, It’s Not Rocket Science, quantum-mechanic-turned-comedian Ben Miller talks about this “falling out” with STEM that a lot of us experience:
“Science has hurt you in the past. Not to begin with, of course. As a child, you and Science adored each other. After all, what toddler doesn’t marvel at the Moon and the stars and boldly thump whatever buttons it can get its hands on at the Science Museum? But as you grew older, your relationship became more difficult. Despite your efforts to build bridges, Science confused you, patronised you, or, worst of all, bored you. Meanwhile, the arts – with their wafty libertine wiles – seduced you shamelessly”
At around the same time I resigned myself to loving science from afar, my closest colleague and mentor introduced me to the idea of fixed and growth mindset. It’s one of many, many gifts she has given me over the past half-decade for which I will never be able to adequately thank her.
If you haven’t read it, Mindset by Carol Dweck will change the way you think about human ability, and our capacity to learn and master skills. To boil it down – people with a growth mindset believe that there is no such thing as “innate ability”, and that the key to success in any field is simply hard work and persistence. People with a fixed mindset believe some people are naturally good at things, where others are not. Having a growth mindset is associated with all kinds of incredible results – ability to overcome challenges, improved self-esteem and mental health, ability to reach career and academic goals, etc.
It took a while before I realized that Carol Dweck was talking to me. She was reaching out from the pages of the book, smacking me upside my head and saying “there’s no difference between you and people studying quantum mechanics, except that they kept at it and you didn’t”. That’s a double-edged sword – suddenly, I felt like anything was possible. Contrary to what I had convinced myself of, I now believed I could do and be anything, as long as I tried hard enough. That’s a lot of pressure for a 25-year-old already trying to do it all.
There came a point where I didn’t have much of a choice anymore: I was going to have to learn basic math. I was hoping to do a PhD in education at an American university, and that would require me to write a GRE exam. The GRE is a standardized exam with three sections: math (at a high school level), analytical writing, and verbal reasoning. I’d spent a lifetime preparing for analytical writing and verbal reasoning – I wasn’t worried about that. But math? That would take some work. But I felt prepared, excited even: this was the proverbial kick in the ass I needed to finally start building the skills I’d neglected so long ago.
I scheduled my GRE exam and mapped out my study plan. I had never felt more confident. I was a university professor with near perfect grades in all my studies to date…. what’s a little basic math? I’d study up and ace this exam.
You know the saying “pride goeth before a fall”? I lived that fall… twice. Two times I madly studied for the GRE and then cancelled at the last minute, afraid that I wasn’t adequately prepared. The more I dug into the material, the more I realized I didn’t know. In order to solve problems at the speed required for the GRE, I would have to know my multiplication tables – I had never learned them before. Long division, the exam prep guide informed me, was “not covered in this review” because it “should be familiar to you”. I had either never learned long division before, or I had cleared it from my memory in attempt to make room for Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy, or memorizing all the states in the US, or some such Artsy thing.
I wish there was a word for how it felt. Everybody I told about the experience said I was just being “modest”, that I would ace the exam if I just tried it, that I probably didn’t even need to study. They meant well, but it didn’t help – I had done the practice tests, and I was painfully aware of exactly how poorly I’d perform (particularly on the math section) if I had gone on with the test.
The issue was, I was trying to master more complex mathematic principles in a very short period of time (I had between 1 and 2 days to master each concept, balanced with a full load of teaching and research), without ever having mastered the more basic principles of math. It became increasingly, painfully obvious to me that cutting corners wasn’t doing me any favours… I’d have to start over at the beginning. Of course, it probably didn’t help that around the same time I started getting really excited about some other career opportunities – ones that would take me off the path of academia entirely. But that’s a story for another time.
Regardless of whether I was going to do a PhD, or even the GRE for that matter, I felt I owed it to myself to finally put in the hard work required to understand basic math and science – the stuff I missed out on in my 11th and 12th grades when I avoided maths and sciences like the plague and instead opted for courses with titles like “Church and Culture”, “Writer’s Craft”, and “Philosophy: Questions and Theories”.
I called a local adult high school in my city. When the administrator answered, I hardly knew what I wanted to ask about “umm, hi… I… I have a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree in the Arts but I never took math or science in high school beyond what was required and I wanted to see if I could maybe… I guess, take those courses? Not necessarily for credit, but… you know? Is that… something people… do?”.
She was gentle with me, bless her. The adult high school I had contacted was a full-time, in-person high school – it looks a lot like any high school (dull, rectangular buildings, classrooms accommodating 20 – 30 desks) but the students are all over 20 years old. I was welcome to register if I wanted, but she wondered if I might look at online high school credits? They might suit me a little better, she thought.
She was right, of course. As I began to look into it, I realized something incredible: in Ontario, regardless of your age, you can always register for a high school course online for a measly fee of $40. It doesn’t matter if you already have a high school diploma – you can still take more courses at any time. They send you the required material by mail, you have up to 10 months to review the material, complete some basic assignments, and write a final exam. It’s part time (you fit it in whenever you have time, after your work day, on the weekend), and it’s totally online with the exception of the final exam.
Having been removed from the public education system for so long, the idea that one can get an entire crash course in a subject for a mere $40 feels criminal. One course at a university is hundreds of dollars, plus the cost of textbooks and other materials. Other privately offered GRE prep courses (and other such educational opportunities) are equally costly. But these high school courses? Not only are they dirt cheap, they’re also fascinating. I immediately registered for Grade 11 physics, chemistry, biology, and mathematics.
If you’ve been removed from the high school environment for a while, perhaps the idea of revisiting Grade 11 material feels dull. I get it. But one look at the syllabi, and I think you’ll realize how f****ing awesome this stuff is. Here’s a taste:
- Physics (sound waves, motion and transportation, Newton’s laws, electricity and energy, magnetism)
- Chemistry (matter, chemical reactions, gases and atmospheric chemistry)
- Biology (evolution, genes, basic internal systems, plant anatomy, biodiversity)
- Math (exponents, trigonometry, fibonacci sequence and discrete functions)
A long time ago, these subjects would have felt daunting. Without understanding the applications of these concepts, I would have likely found it boring as well (what do “Newton’s laws” matter anyway? What’s the point of knowing about the “genes” and “evolution”?). But now that I’ve read about the application of physics, chemistry and biology to some of our biggest and most exciting problems, I know exactly how thrilling and important this material is. And I feel incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to right my past wrongs, and revisit an old fling – Science.
That’s why, at 25-years-old, I’m going back to high school. Wish me luck.