The Serendipity of Learning

I’ve spent much of this week doing interviews for Early Action applicants to MIT.  This volunteer role lets me meet a lot of very cool young people.  Moreover, although I live in Boston, I do interviews in my home town of Vestal, NY to a radius of a couple hours out.  It’s a sparsely-populated region, so I meet a wide mix of folks.

This year, I’ve been struck by how much applicants are shaped by their surroundings.  The difference in resources between schools and communities is stark.  At one extreme, there are famous magnet schools like as Stuyvesant or Thomas Jefferson which have highly-advanced courses, advisers to help students complete Intel research projects, training for national-level competitions, and high awareness of advanced summer programs.  At the other end, rural or inner-city schools that have virtually no AP classes.  But right near Vestal there is also wide variation.  Vestal, my alma matter, has a number of academic clubs, advanced study through both AP courses and an IB program, and, for those students who take initiative, the opportunity to take classes at SUNY Binghamton (one of the top New York public universities) or even to do research there.  In contrast, I’ve interviewed students from 30-60 minutes out whose schools have fewer than 5 AP courses available, and where awareness of out-of-school opportunities are minimal.  There, if the family has sets the right kind of tone, then kids can discover serious resources and potentially make a lot of progress.

It’s easy to forget in all of the debates about testing, teachers, and curriculum that our learning and achievements are strongly defined by our communities, their awareness and emphasis on learning, and our opportunity to learn.  The best students I’ve met from more remote schools had families who provided them with reading suggestions and role models.  Creating opportunity to learn (and the inspiration to pursue it) has been a driving force of my career in education from Learning Unlimited to the Summer Program in Mathematical Problem Solving to Mathcamp.

Unfortunately, you can’t just say “here, kids, have an opportunity!”  There are innumerable influences on students’ time.  To pursue real studies, they need some mix of older peers to be role models, teachers who will be supportive, knowledge of how to pursue those studies, a sense of where serious study will take them, and more.  Yet even those opportunities aren’t quite enough.  Most of what we choose to do comes from serendipity.  We hear about an opportunity right when we have a moment to Google it.  We have an argument with a friend and, feeling isolated, we immerse ourselves in our work—just when an interesting topic comes up—and because we happen to do well on that test, we decide to pursue that topic more seriously.  Our attention catches on random things, and if our world isn’t permeated with topics of interest, we’ll miss those serendipitous moments.

Which is to say that we have a long way to go if we’re going to get more people to pursue learning outside of school.  For my part, now I’m thinking about organizing a “math day” for anyone within 90 miles of Vestal sometime in the spring so they can get a taste of advanced math.  What are you going to do?

Author: danzaharopol

I am a math geek. I love doing math, learning math, and teaching math. Nothing excites me more than working with young people who are discovering new and amazing things. Professionally, I founded Bridge to Enter Advanced Mathematics (BEAM), a program that makes it possible for low-income and underserved students to become scientists, mathematicians, engineers, and programmers. That's where I spend most of my time geeking out about math these days. Prior to BEAM, I was a math graduate student (studying algebraic topology) and taught math in places all around the country. I also co-founded and served as the founding CEO of Learning Unlimited, an organization that mentors college students to create enrichment programs for local middle and high school students. In my non-existent free time, I love board games, great plays, frisbee, and reading.

2 thoughts on “The Serendipity of Learning”

  1. An area wide math day is a great idea to catch the attention of students already immersed in the subject (and all of its applications) and the event sounds like it’ll attract students already flourishing in the mathematics. With that said it seems like your goal is to really reach out to students that aren’t in schools with “aggressive” math and science programs- or who simply don’t know that they’re even interested in it yet. I enjoy math days ( I even broke my ankle at one), but to a lot of students who are usually surrounded by the everyday jam of hard GPA satisfying, class dances, and “Call of Duty” a math day just might seem like another brochure laying in the councilor’s office. The problem is that for some reason high school math has developed an almost sinister reputation to the majority of secondary school students and when that happens, and mathematics becomes a game of survival instead of natural interest people tend to develop a mental schema where math is not an art/game/curiosity at all and practically automatically shut off to the idea of exploring it.

    Seeing that your an MIT grad, maybe a “Vestal Technology Day” sponsored by the Institution. A lot of times I hear students in math muttering “when will I ever use this?” so perhaps its time to show them.

    I think the Science Olympiad’s theme of “competition” is great in the fact that it gears students to thinking that they’re “competing against other teams” or even building “death-bots” which funnily enough plummets them into (what they thought to be) serene and maybe “boring” mathematical thinking. That way they also stop focusing on they’re bad experiences in mathematics, trying to analyze what’s wrong with them, and start looking at whats literally in front of them at and how to solve/build/win it, which often yields a more positive outcome.
    At the end of last year I started a Science, Math, and Robotics Club at my school, and its attracting all kinds of students. Currently I’m trying to whip up a schedule for the club where students can teach their peers about a particular science or subject that isn’t offered in the curriculum, that way they gain a genuine interest to learn something, and then even a personal responsibility to teach it.

    People seem to become more interested in certain things when they’re awake, interested, and focused to what those things solely are.

    Christopher WIggin from Seattle
    (high school Senior)

    1. That sounds like great work! It’s fantastic that you’re building that up. I think the peer-to-peer method will be particularly effective at motivating students if you can present things well.

      I agree that math days or the like won’t really get students who aren’t interested yet in math. Unfortunately, that requires a more sustained commitment and since I’m not in the area, I don’t think that I can pull it off. But I do want to at least give those students who *want* to learn more the opportunity to really get into it.

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