Why the hobby question is so challenging

Twice in the last week I’ve been asked about my hobbies. I’m always at a loss when asked that question. In wondering why that question is so hard for me to answer I’ve come up with a couple of thoughts.

First, as a homeschooling, stay-at-home mom I have difficulty distinguishing between hobby and work. I love picking out curriculum and looking through school resources…is that work or a hobby? I love reading the books my kids are reading so we can discuss them…is that work or a hobby? What about teaching Bible study…is that work or a hobby? There are parts of my life that I definitely do not love and so get classified as work, grading being the example that immediately comes to mind. The housework part of my life is definitely not a hobby, I would give that up in a heartbeat!

Second, if I admit my hobbies then I usually get strange looks so I’m a bit reluctant to confess them. Here’s a partial list of ‘hobbies’ I’ve pursued in the last year: taking two classes from CCEF (Dynamics of Biblical Change and Biblical Interpretation), practicing Spanish with Duolingo, Scripture Typer for Bible memory, Frame’s ethics class on iTunesU, studying for the first actuarial exam, blogging, reading 3-4 books a week both fiction and non-fiction, reading through Calvin’s Institutes, working on a cross-stitch Christmas stocking for my son, and various computer games. People don’t seem to know what to do with that list and I generally choose not to share most of it.

So why am I reluctant to share it? I think mainly because sharing that list generally separates me from the person I’m talking to. They are looking for common interests and it is rare when that list offers them a significant one. I think I need to start being braver about sharing. It is after all whom I am.

The Goblin Emperor

Katherine Addison has created a world both intricate and intriguing in her novel The Goblin Emperor. Maia, a disfavored, youngest half–goblin son of the Emperor has been kept away from the palace his entire life. Now at eighteen he is catapulted into the intrigues of court life when his father and brothers are killed in an accident. Maia must decide who is trustworthy and figure out how to remain himself in a world where his every move is scripted by court etiquette.

We see events through Maia’s perspective, but although his life is turned upside down he is not a character who grows but a character who learns who he is. Maia has to figure out how to be emperor without losing who he is and I enjoyed seeing how he learned to do this. The character growth happens in characters who interact with Maia as they respond to his unexpected grace, honesty and friendship.

On her website Addison states that she has no plans to write a sequel. I’m surprised by this as there are so many interesting problems for Maia to work through: a war caused by building on holy ground, a bridge that if built will change the economy of the land, aristocratic women rebelling against the expectations of marriage and child bearing and establishing a relationship with his Goblin grandfather. Hopefully Katherine Addison will change her mind and continue the sage of The Goblin Emperor.

The Triple Package

Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld take on a topic fraught with controversy and accusations of racism in their book The Triple Package as they consider what makes particular cultural groups succeed in America while other cultural groups remain stuck in poverty and underachievement.

Chua and Rubenfeld define success in material terms while acknowledging that there are many other ways to define success in life. Their reminders of this throughout the book have the valuable benefit of inviting the reader to examine her definition of successful living in the midst of the discussion about why some groups are so wildly successful.

The ‘Triple Package’ that fosters material success are a superiority complex, insecurity and impulse control. Through many specific examples the authors show how these three characteristics in a cultural group combine to produce above expected numbers of successful individuals. Some time is also spent discussing the pathologies inherent in these traits. Although the authors do not directly enter into the debate about what kind of childhood is ideal (highly disciplined, tiger mom style or lots of free, unstructured time) this book throws light (and heat!) on the discussion of what an ideal childhood is demonstrating that the outcome desired must be determined before the question of ideal childhood can be addressed. This directs the debate into more productive territory reminding us to define successful adulthood before we consider the topic of ideal childhood.

One group the authors do not discuss is homeschoolers. I would be curious to examine homeschooling through the lens of the Triple Package. Although homeschoolers are not a united cultural group as many homeschool for a wide variety of reasons and in highly varied circumstances, as a homeschooler I have found the first two characteristics of the Triple Package to be prevalent. First, homeschoolers tend to feel a bit superior over others in the sense that we’ve chosen a path that makes us unique. Second, homeschoolers are almost always insecure. Have I chosen the best curriculum for my child? Would he do better in a different school setting? What gaps are there in his education? I’m not so sure about impulse control. This might vary with homeschooling philosophy and implementation.

Whatever your definition of success, The Triple Package will provide much food for thought.

The Vanishing Sculptor

I checked The Vanishing Sculptor by Donita K. Paul out of the library hoping for a fun vacation read and ended up finding a new author to read with a new world to discover and enjoy.

Through the first half of the book I wasn’t sure I whether or not I liked it. Some of the characters were annoying and the plot seemed to be moving very slowly. Somewhere in the middle of the book I began to like the characters, gaining an appreciation for their quirkiness. Perhaps this is the effect Paul is striving for as the characters themselves have to learn to love each other in spite of, or perhaps because of, their eccentricities.

I was also surprised by the spiritual themes in the book. Many (perhaps most?) science fiction/ fantasy books have some sort of religious belief system in their world. Generally it is an important part of the culture but not an area of character growth. In The Vanishing Sculptor we see both a fate-based belief system that all acknowledge to be the stuff of children’s tales and hints of an understanding of a God who has made himself known, a God who loves and cares for his creatures. Donita Paul gives us only the sketchiest of details about this God, I am curious to discover in her other books about this world whether or not she truly introduces her reader to the God who creates, loves, and redeems his people.

Nudge

All too frequently we fail to follow through on decisions we make. We turn off the alarm instead of getting up to exercise. We put off filling our insurance beneficiary forms for one more day. We plan to start saving more for retirement next year. In Nudge , Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sustein describe how choice architecture (how choices are presented) can ‘nudge’ us toward making and following through on decisions.

In the first section, fascinating research is presented about what influences human decision making processes. The very manner in which a choice is presented influences the outcome leading the authors to advocate for ‘libertarian paternalism’ in choice architecture. In libertarian paternalism a person is free to make his own choice with as few obstacles as possible (the libertarian part) but choice architecture is deliberately used to make the default or most likely choices those that are likely to be in the best interest of most people (the paternalism part). The authors emphasize that it is impossible to have a neutral choice architecture, framing the discussion in terms of what choice architecture to use rather than whether choice architecture should be used.

The authors then offer ways in which libertarian paternalism could be used to improve the outcome in retirement savings, medicare part D, environmental concerns, medical malpractice, marriage laws and school choice.

Whether you want to make better decisions for yourself, understand how you are influenced in decision making or consider how to encourage others to make better decisions for themselves and for society you will find this book insightful.

The Number Devil

In The Number Devil by Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Robert, a boy who hates math, is visited in his dreams by a number devil. The number devil is a bit annoying in the beginning but becomes a likeable character by the end of the book. Robert is not sure he likes the number devil visiting his dreams, but even dreams of math are better than his normal bad dreams and eventually he looks forward to his encounters with the number devil.

From the beginning the number devil insists on the difference between calculation and mathematics. Learning to add/subtract/multiply/divide is important but not interesting, while mathematics is beautiful art, interesting puzzles, and amazing patterns. Through a series of dream encounters Robert learns about infinity, the importance of zero, square numbers, triangular numbers, Fibonacci numbers, Pascal’s triangle, combinations and permutations and more. I love that the interrelationship of these concepts are explored also and the reader is invited to continue exploring on her own. In some of the concepts the author uses made up terms like rutabaga for square root and unreasonable numbers for irrational numbers. He explains at the end of the book that technical terms don’t belong in dreams and provides a list of the actual names of the concepts. This contributes to the author’s premise that math is to be played with but does require that the appropriate terminology be introduced as I’m not sure a student would read the glossary to learn the correct terms.  I would have prefered the correct terms be used in the book but can see how using rutabaga for square root encourages playfulness.

Describing the process of mathematical proof is one of the strengths of this book. As Robert learns more and thinks more he wants to know the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ of the tricks and patterns the number devil has showed him. The number devil agrees that examples can only go so far in learning mathematics, you need to prove an idea before you can be convinced it is true. The proof process is described as a raging stream that you must cross by leaping from rock to rock. The rocks are the axioms and theorems that have already been proved. To cross the stream you may have to try several different paths as one that looks promising from the bank turns out to be a dead-end. What a wonderful way to illustrate the adventure of proof while giving encouragement to experiment and explore!

In the end Robert realizes that he enjoys math, not because the number devil has made it easy, but because he has discovered that math is interesting and full of surprising relationships. Most importantly, Robert is no longer scared of math but excited about all there is to discover and learn.

Common Core Math Thoughts

Common core math problems can frequently be found floating around facebook these days. Usually it is a problem in which addition or subtraction is done without using the algorithm that was standardly taught in the good old days, perhaps something like finding the solution to 33 – 11 by adding 4 + 5 + 10 + 3 = 22. The facebook post invites you to join in complaining about the insanity of the current state of mathematical education being ushered in with Common Core. I do have many concerns about Common Core, mainly centered on the continued nationalization of educational control, but many complaints about Common Core math just serve to highlight the innumeracy of those making them.

If we want our students to be problem solvers we need to teach many different strategies and encourage them to experiment with those strategies. The standard algorithms are not the most efficient way to solve many small number arithmetic problems. Other mental arithmetic strategies (groups of 5s and 10s, multiplying by powers of 10 ,etc.) are faster and build a strong number sense at the same time. The standard algorithms become most useful when the numbers get too inconvenient to handle with mental strategies. For example, Peter learned the long division algorithm before the long multiplication algorithm because he was encountering division problems that were too cumbersome to do with his mental grouping strategies. He was thrilled that I could show him a way to organize his work using standard long division. The long division algorithm met a need for him by making a difficult problem easier so he loved learning it. He doesn’t always use it. If the problem can be easily done by making groups in his head he will do it that way. The algorithm is an effective tool because he doesn’t use it automatically when he sees a division problem but treats it as one possible way to attack division.

Teaching this way happened mostly because my boys like to avoid writing down their work if at all possible. As a result they will use complicated adding on strategies for addition/subtraction or grouping strategies for multiplication/division to avoid having to write down their work since to use a standard algorithm it pretty much needs to be written down (and written down neatly!). They both now know how to use the standard algorithms and are now getting to the point that they will voluntarily use them in a problem with large numbers. But they see the standard algorithms as just another strategy for solving a problem and have developed the freedom of thought to choose from a variety of options. Sometimes they choose inefficiently but that’s how they learns the limits and advantages of the different mathematical tools available.

Even though the mathematical thought development in our homeschool as been similar to Common Core, I don’t think Common Core in a classroom setting would have had the same result with my boys. What we did worked because I could listen to them individually explain their logic. I could correct any conceptual understandings and they were not frustrated by large amounts of writing. I am concerned that although many different ways of thinking mathematically are encouraged in Common Core, children who are reluctant writers will be left thinking they don’t like math.

If we want our children to be problem solvers we have to introduce them to a variety of tools to solve problems and then let them figure out how to use those tools. I’ve tutored kids in math from elementary grades through STEM algebra II and calculus classes and most often I see teachers giving students a procedure to memorize rather than teaching concepts that can be combined in multiple ways to solve problems. It is safer, more comfortable to have a procedure. It is risky to be a problem solver. Looking for a solution means I may not find it or I may take a long time to find it or I may find a new path to the solution. Whatever happens I will know how to use my tools better at the end of the process. There are aspects of Common Core math that could cast students in the role of problem solver. It remains to be seen whether or not teachers will resort to prescribing procedures rather than supporting students in the risky business of problem solving.