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Learning at its Best

Actually, You Don’t Hate Math (or Social Studies or English or Science)

“I hate math. When I was a kid, I just couldn’t remember all the formulas and I couldn’t figure out how to take what the teacher did and make it my own,” a friend tells me.  He doesn’t hate math. He probably doesn’t even hate computation or algorithms. No, he hates magical math. He hates compliantly copying formulas.

“Still to this day, I hate social studies. When I was a student, all we ever did was memorize capitals and dates and I sucked at that. I could always tell by how disappointed the teacher looked when she handed me back the papers,” a woman tells me at a birthday party. She’s interested in social issues. She’s fascinated by the stories of people’s lives. The truth is she loves social studies. What she hates are the memories of having to play Google as a child.

“I hated English when I was a kid. I was home-schooled and my mom had been a journalism major. I remember that she would circle every split infinitive and I had to read The Bridge to Terebithia and what I really wanted to read were science articles and comic books. I used to sneak Spiderman the way other kids might sneak porn,” a man tells me when I tell him I’m a teacher.  The truth is that he never hated English. He never hated reading or writing. What he hated was the lack of choice and autonomy and the grammar gestapo who mistakenly taught him that our words are governed by arbitrary rules rather than a deeply human need to communicate.

And here’s me. I hated science, because I was told that an acceptance of science meant I had to abandon the possibility of a deity (for the record, I was asked at church to abandon my acceptance of evolution as well). I hated science, because I was told that my definition of energy (in third grade I had defined it as “the stuff that makes stuff change”) wasn’t as accurate as the one from the book. Looking back on it, I never hated science. I’ve always loved to observe, to test, to inquire about the universe. What I hated were disconnected, overly simplistic models and the dogmatic catechism of fill-in-the-bubble answer sheets.

Children are naturally interested in all subjects. Tragically, through compliance or shame or rewards or whatever, they become the subjects, learning to listen and obey a voice that goes against their identity.


About John Spencer

I teach. I write. I live. I want to do all three authentically.


10 thoughts on “Actually, You Don’t Hate Math (or Social Studies or English or Science)

  1. Simply embracing a different model or system won’t necessarily fix it, either. I’ve seen people in every model end up killing the desire for learning. The answer has to include a respect for the identity of the student, for autonomy and for creativity. I’m still learning this with my kids at home and with the students I teach.

    Posted by John T. Spencer | December 12, 2011, 2:28 pm
  2. We have to be very careful when we compare learning to schooling. Too often learning is what takes place outside of school or in spite of it. Is it really learning when it is prescribed? When someone tells me they hate a specific subject I tell them theyd don’t hate it, they hate the way they were forced to learn it…

    Posted by wmchamberlain | December 12, 2011, 4:09 pm
  3. I think you hit the nail on the head. The problem is not the name of the subject but how the subject is conceptualized in school, taught and assessed. I’m one of the lucky ones, I came out of my schooling loving English, math, science, social studies, even French; I just hated school.

    Posted by Deven Black | December 12, 2011, 8:12 pm
  4. John…

    Excellent food for thought. Our students are learning to hate school. I believe that there is not one answer either… It is not only a systems issue, a personnel issue, a financial issue – it is many things rolled into one. We need conversations like the co-op to take the lead in the national conversation.

    The time to reform was decades ago… We need to stop excuses, and take the lead. Thanks for the post – I enjoyed it (and relived high school).

    Posted by Mike Meechin | December 13, 2011, 10:19 pm
  5. John, what’s the functional difference for kids hating whatever it is they hate now, and how should the profession and parents act if there is no functional difference?


    Posted by Chad Sansing | December 14, 2011, 7:52 am
  6. If a kid is in a classroom she hates, is there a difference between her hatred of a subject and her hatred of whatever teaching and/or relating is happening? What do we do now, as a profession (and/or as parents or citizens), to help that kid in the day-to-day moments of schooling?

    Without the comfort (?) of hindsight, what is she to do?


    Posted by Chad Sansing | December 15, 2011, 11:59 am

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