You’re Supposed to Say No

Yesterday I had lunch with my good friend Sam Dyson, director of the Hive, which promotes teen learning through the internet. Like a good therapist, Sam tends to push, and yesterday he wanted to know what Math Circles of Chicago really trying to achieve. What does success look like? What’s the ‘why’?

Like many Americans, movie quotes are cultural touchstones, and what came to mind was this exchange from “Stand and Deliver,” the film about the great math teacher Jaime Escalante and his quest to bring AP Calculus to an underserved school in Los Angeles:

  • Escalante: Do you want me to do it for you?
  • Student: Yes.
  • Escalante: You’re supposed to say no!

In my own classroom, when I saw them struggling, the first question I always asked them was, “Do you want my help?”  When a student got to the point where they said, “No,” I felt they had succeeded.

To get to this point, kids need a lot of things–experience with challenging and unusual problems, a collection of heuristics (rules of thumb) that transfer from problem to problem, and membership in a community of like minded people.

So what is success for a program like Math Circles? The same, I think, as for any educational program. When students develop their own agency, they have succeeded. Just say no.