Wednesday, September 4

Thinking Still Beats Searching When You Need Four Gallons.

My wife had a question the other day, but it wasn't her question. The question belonged to my son and he didn't want to ask me. He thought he knew what I would say. He was wrong, but close enough.

The question was a puzzler of sorts. It was a problem from his math teacher. And any student who turns in the answer Tuesday (today) will receive extra credit. The reason my wife asked me wasn't a puzzler. She wanted him to receive the extra credit. (What parent wouldn't? Besides me, I mean.)

Maybe I should clarify that point. I don't want him to receive extra credit. I want him to learn it. And given that he had the whole weekend to figure it out and it was only the Friday before the long Labor Day weekend, there was no rush on my part. 

How can you make four gallons if you only have a three gallon bucket and a five gallon bucket?

I told him to wait until I had finished my part of the shopping list, groceries for the meals I would cook for the week ahead. Even then, I said, expect some help but not the answer. He didn't want that. 

A few minutes later, I looked over at him. He had moved on to another problem. Specifically, he was trying to figure out which route to take as he transported his stolen loot from a bank to an escape vehicle.  Right. He was playing PayDay 2 on the Xbox. 

"Why aren't you working on the problem?" I asked.

"I already spent 20 minutes working on it in class," he said.

"Well, obviously that isn't enough," I suggested. 

"It's all right," he said. "I already looked it up." 

"You did what?"

"I did what you were probably going to tell me to do," he said.

"You did what?" 

"I looked it up. Done."

"You looked it up, where?" 


Ah, Google. If there has ever been a company of smart people responsible for the dumbing down of America, it has to be Google. All students have to do is drop in a few key words from their math problems and poof — they can find an answer while unceremoniously learning nothing in the process.

"I didn't tell you to look it up," I said. "I was going to give you a hint."

The reason I wanted to give him a hint was because the puzzler is not the real problem. Although the question suggests you need to measure four gallons of water using a three gallon bucket and a five gallon bucket, the real problem is something else. It's what stops most people after 20 minutes of class.

In order to solve the problem, you really need to establish what X might be. And in this case, X is really whatever it takes to make gallon of water. I wouldn't have told him that, but intended to point him in that direction by asking what stopped him from answering the question. Except, I couldn't anymore. 

Google beat me to it. And today, all across the country, Google is going to beat other teachers and parents too. It's not the company's fault, but it is creating a problem. Sometimes it pays to look something up. Other times, it is much more rewarding to figure it out. Figuring teaches you to think and rethink. 

The most creative (and possibly efficient solutions) aren't online. 

EducationOne of my favorite authors of all time never wrote any fiction. His name is Richard Feynman. He was a scientist and winner of a Nobel Prize in physics. The reason he won it is punctuated by his affliction for figuring things out as opposed to looking them up. By thinking, he often debunked popular theories. 

It had been that way all his life. Even when he was 11, Feynman started to think his way around radios. Eventually, he moved on to fixing burglar alarms, amplifiers and other gadgets too. It was in his nature. He seldom looked anything up. Reinventing the wheel, for him, often made the wheel better. 

There are dozens of stories that underscore his point in his books and books about him. He said it over and over and over again. Even when the New York Times wrote an article about his legacy in 1992, it recounted how Murray Gell-Mann described The Feynman Algorithm to solve everything. 

What is the algorithm? It's simple enough. You write down the problem. You think very hard. And then you write down an answer. For many years, this phenomenon called thinking is what set American students apart from students in the rest of the world despite those international tests that suggested otherwise.

Most students, he observed when teaching abroad, are taught to memorize the answers. But he preferred to teach students to think through problems rather than always assuming the experts were right. Not only did that inspire new ways to think about things, but it also gave students the ability to apply what they've learned to a completely new set of paradigms and problems. Right. They get good at it.

There are some days that I'm not sure Feynman would feel American students are set apart anymore. Many of our students have been taught to resist the urge to think nowadays. And they are not alone. 

People ask questions online all the time or turn to key word searches to ask things like "how do I get more traffic to my site?" or "how do I get more Twitter followers?" or "who are the influencers in this field and that field?" as if those people can think better than they. There is nothing wrong with that, but I wonder if any of them know that one set of solutions doesn't fit a different set of problems.

Sure, seeing how other people solve their problems can be useful at times. But almost every communication problem is patently unique. You have to think very hard. Besides, just as I told my son, you have to try thinking in order to become a great thinker. It requires practice, just like anything. 

How about you? What do you think? And by that, I mean about anything? The comments are yours. Let's talk.
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