Word Problems: as easy as getting to work on time.

Word problems terrify beginning algebra students.  Their lament can be heard all across the globe, and it wouldn’t surprise me if they are among the first signals aliens receive from planet Earth.  Students wonder why they have to learn these difficult problems.  Let me tell you then that not only are they important, you probably do them on a daily basis and do not realize it.

For many people, that is like telling them that, on a daily basis, they uproot trees with their bare hands.  Not possible!  Oh, but it is.  You need to get to work on time, but you’re staying over at a friend’s (I won’t ask why.), and you have no idea how long it will take you to get to work.  You look at the clock, you ask your friend how far it is to your employers.’  He or she tells you, “35 miles.”  You’re in a residential area, the speed limit is 25 mph, and you are a law abiding citizen.  You always go the speed limit (heh). You have to be there at 9:00AM.  It is now 7:30AM.  You relax.  You realize you have time.  Now, how did you do that?

Without knowing it, you applied the algebraic formula: D=rt.  (Distance equals rate multiplied by time.)  You knew that the distance was 35 miles, your rate would be 25 mph, and you rearranged the formula, by the rules of algebra, to t=d/r.  You then divided the distance by the rate, and realized that it would take an hour and twenty-four minutes to get then and you had an hour and a half.  Since you’ve done this thousands of times, you did it so lightning fast, you didn’t even know you did it.

You see how easy word problems are?  You’ve done them all your life without knowing it.  You’re like the man in the Moliere story who didn’t realize that he was speaking prose all his life.

Writing prose.  That comes next.  You’ve mastered a word problem, right?  You can do anything.

Go ahead.  Uproot that tree with your bare hands.  I dare you.




I bet you’ve heard the following, maybe even said it to yourself. “I’m bad at math;” “I just can’t get it;” “I’ll never be able to get it.” There are so many things wrong with this approach to math, it’s hard to know where to begin. First, it’s negative self-talk; we all know where that gets us. But it also presupposes a static, fixed math ability.
We don’t think this about anything else (or if we do, we need therapy). Imagine saying, “I know I’ll be bad at basketball; I tried it when I was 10 and I was horrible at it.” Well, at 10 you were what? 5 feet tall; now, you’re over 6 feet tall. That could make a difference. Just a little.
Similarly, we go through developmental stages in learning. Piaget thought we couldn’t do abstract learning until adolescence. Yes, about the time our physical skills are flourishing, so are our mental skills. It is no coincidence that you try out for the football team or the cheer leading squad at the same time that you learn Algebra I.
Teachers are beginning to understand this. (Finally.) The idea of growth mindsets is catching on in many schools. This is accompanied by encouraging individual development and evaluating according to where the student starts, and the progress he or she has made from that starting point. My first trophy in target shooting was for “most improved shooter.” At least I had hit the target. Now, I rarely miss the 9 or 10 ring.
The idea that math skills grow makes learning math more like learning a physical skill. Any good coach will tell you that you have to “normalize failure.” In other words, as my kung-fu instructor repeatedly told me, “If something is worth doing, it is worth doing badly at first.” My first day in karate, I put my pants on backwards. Now, I can defeat Black Belts in sparring. Failure is to be expected; it is part of learning; in fact, learning presupposes it. As Socrates observed millennia ago, if you already knew the answer, you wouldn’t bother looking for it.
I read one lesson plan which said that you should love mistakes, as it’s how you learn.
Remember, there was only one perfect human being, and I bet even he had problems in learning math. I mean five loaves of bread and two fish to feed 10,000 people? That would take a miracle. All math learning takes is perseverance and the right help.

Handling Extreme Emotions & Social Situations

Jean Paul Sartre, in plays like “No Exit,” and novels like Nausea, masterfully showed what happens when emotions run awry or we are faced with limiting social relations. He thought the way around these issues was through social revolution and a collectivized society.  But there are far less drastic solutions to social and emotional problems.

H. Gardner and T Hatch, in their famous article, “Multiple Intelligences Go to School,” laid the groundwork for the development, not just of the intelligence needed for success in a technological society, but for one where social relationships and emotions rule. We are in such a society. Many schools now explicitly teach social-emotional learning (SEL), and find that it creates a positive learning environment that results in an average 11% increase in academic achievement. Skills involved include recognizing emotions in self and others, regulating and managing strong emotions, recognizing strengths and areas of need, listening and communicating accurately, sensing one’s own emotions, respecting others and self and appreciating differences, approaching others and building positive relationships, resisting negative peer pressure, conflict resolution, and negotiating skills. SEL has replaced character education, and is helpful in bullying prevention, violence prevention, drug/alcohol prevention, and anger management.
What can you do to help your student develop SEL skills? First, practice them yourself. A fifteen-minute drill a day will enhance your ability to recognize your child’s emotional needs, and thus help him or her develop ways of satisfying them. This is crucial, not just to help them fit in, but to help them know when they should stand their ground, fight, or negotiate. When the alternative from conflict is to back off, these skills will help them distinguish surrender from peace making.
Raise them to be adults, and they will be adults.
Dr. Fred Young


I was told by my grandmother how the Sears catalog in the mail was one of the events that everyone in her town looked forward to with great glee.  They could actually buy things!  Yay!  Now, there’s a department store almost anywhere, and yes, Virginia, there is an Internet.  You can always get what you want.

The same thing goes for services, like tutoring.

Everyone will, at some point, need a tutor unless you’re one of those rare people who get skills and knowledge immediately.  I know I’m not. I have a PhD, have published in prestigious journals, and have won awards for my teaching.  But physically, I was an uncoordinated disaster.  That is, until I got one on one training in kenpo karate from a world class trainer. Similarly, you, or your son or daughter, might be a champion athlete, but are hopeless at math.  And you know that math skills are essential in our society.  Without them, you might as well pack it in and start living in a cave.

I had clients, a star basketball athlete and a star baseball player (played for the minor leagues), both like that. Yet, without math success, they might not even have been allowed on the team.

If that happens, they feel like a failure, their team loses, the school loses, and guess who feels responsible for that?  The parent, of course.

But, I hear you cry, there are no tutors around.  Well, that wouldn’t be true; it’s just that there aren’t any good tutors around.

Well, we have the internet!  With Skype, or video conferencing, you can have a tutor from far away as close as your computer.  Isn’t that great?

You should, of course, use the same criteria in selecting the tutor as if he were physically present.  How many years has he been tutoring, does he have advanced degrees?  A Master’s?  A Doctorate? Does he have testimonials?  Does he teach to your student’s (or to your) learning style?  Does he know how to meet your student’s special needs?  If the answer is yes, then he is as close as the nearest laptop.

Dr. Fred Young

How to Prevent Summer Brain Rot

You know it’s true; your brilliant, academically successful student’s brain turns to mush over the summer.  It’s now slightly past mid-summer, and already the ads are there for “back to school.”  Well, yes, clothes, pens, pencils, new computers, and, of course, the latest fashions, are important, but so much more important is fine tuning your student’s brain.  (Not to mention that it gets them out of your hair for a few minutes a day, and, if you do it right, far less costly than that wardrobe they just “have to have.”)

The first big thing is assessment.  You can incorporate that into daily activities.  Worried about their math skills?  See how well they perform household tasks that involve math (like cooking).  See if they are still interested in reading.  (Haven’t come up with a summer reading program?  It’s not too late.)

Then you get them involved in learning.  Make the learning relevant; activate prior knowledge. If you want them to learn more about the Bible, go back to the parts you looked at last year.  Have them elaborate on their daily activities.  Come up with an information processing model and stick with it.

Above all, have fun!

Dr. Fred Young, the Learning Doctor