## Sal Khan On The Difference Between Math And Wrestling Practice

SAL KHAN: You're in tenth grade Algebra class. The teacher asks the student to do like six problems. "Oh my god." They're groaning. "This is the meanest guy on the planet." And then three hours later we're in wrestling practice and the coach says, "I want you to do fifty pushups followed by running three miles followed by another fifty pushups." And they're like, "Yes, sir. Yes, sir. Push me harder. I want to collapse." I mean, literally, sometimes people would collapse, they were willing to work so hard.

CHARLIE ROSE: So what's the difference?

It goes without saying that if you're Sal Khan or anybody else in the drill-based math proficiency software business, you should give Charlie Rose's question a lot of thought. Kids generally like sports practice a lot more than math practice so there's huge risk and huge reward here.

I don't think Khan's answer is wrong exactly but it's as though Charlie Rose asked him about the appeal of ice cream on a hot summer day and Khan enthused for a few minutes about the taste of the sugar cone. Sugar cones are tasty but there's a lot more to say there.

So let me load the question up on a tee and invite you all to swing away:

What makes sports practice satisfying and how is sports practice different from math practice?

Matt:

In short: Do quadratics for 3 hours a day and you are a nerd with no life. Hit batting practice for 3 hours a day and get the girl and go to the party on the weekend.

Sports practice leads to an actual game – a chance for the results of that hard work to be put to use. And that game will probably happen next week. The payoff for school math is far enough off – years – for most students to be forever. See what happens if you have a wrestler doing just pushups for 5 or 10 years without using it.

Speaking as a track coach / math teacher, I really think the biggest difference is that the kids signed up for it in sports. they knew what they were getting into, and if they want to quit, they are totally able to do so. Ask gym teachers if they have 100% participation in their classes.

A lot of us grow up watching sports with our friends and families. Not a lot of us grow up talking and doing math. For better or worse, sports holds a significant place in our culture.

Immediate and clear feedback. I can make that fade away basket now because I tried it 50 times from the same spot and have hit the last 10 in a row.

Sports — The practice gets put to use, and there is a real payoff or outcome to work toward.

First, there are plenty of kids who feel the inverse (love math practice, hate sports practice). Why do we not think that’s true? Math is required, sports are not.

Pam:

Recently, in a polynomial unit, my kids had to multiply a binomial by a trinomial a few times (like three times). There was also a problem of a 7-term polynomial being multiplied by a trinomial. I told my students that this problem was “challenge by choice” but that I really wanted them to try it – because it was kind of fun in an algebra geeky sort of way. It was really my subversive way to get them to understand the distributive property and that “FOIL” isn’t the best acronym. About 90% of my students tried the hard (or tedious) problem; a bunch did it correctly and most of them came really close.

Ultimately, it’s about a sense of accomplishment – whatever the practice is for.

We try much harder in sports practice because we’re preparing for a game. In most math classrooms, there is no “game”. There’s just practice.

Hard-nosed and repetitive skills work in sports is essential and beneficial. In math, it’s a chore if you “get it” and unhelpful if you don’t.

Endorphins.

R.G.:

Sorry. This sounds like a typical US American discussion to me.

I think another angle would be “growth mindset”. Students believe that they will get better at a sport with that kind of focused practice.

Try running a season’s worth of sports practice without a “scrimmage” and see what happens.

A trumpet player, actor, cellist, dancer who is improving, does so not just through repetitive button pushing or by being yelled at by a coach/math teacher. Productive practice requires intrinsic motivation, reflective ability, attention to detail and a cognitive clarity that connects often the tiniest of personal goals to prior knowledge and past experiences. Understanding results from such clarity. Also, one cannot discount the value of relevance in this equation.

People do not get “good” at something by doing it 10,000 times without caring about it, finding personal value in the activity or by making connections to something bigger than yourself.

### 101 Responses to “Sal Khan On The Difference Between Math And Wrestling Practice”

1. on 08 Apr 2013 at 10:48 amMr. T

Sports practice = good at sports = peer acceptance

Math practice = good at math = peer persecution

2. on 08 Apr 2013 at 10:55 amTom Carson

I think that the main difference is that most people chose to do sports practice…

3. on 08 Apr 2013 at 10:55 amBeth

Sports practice is perceived as play and enjoyable so students do not mind the work of drill and practice. Students, sadly, do not perceive math as fun.

4. on 08 Apr 2013 at 11:00 amKate Nowak

The kid understands the point of sports practice.

5. on 08 Apr 2013 at 11:01 amMatt

6. on 08 Apr 2013 at 11:01 amEileen

In sports, you get to WIN. Far more nebulous in math.

7. on 08 Apr 2013 at 11:02 amMatt

This is an excellent question and one that needs to be explored.

I could attack it from a lot of ways but here is one: Practice in sports is socially acceptable and gets you social standing. Doing well in sports gets you the praise of friends, coaches and parents and might even get your name in the paper. It might even get you a date. There is a large, short-term and concrete payoff to practicing the mundane aspects of sports. The payoff for practicing academic subjects is far in the future and comes will little improvement in social standing/class.

In short: Do quadratics for 3 hours a day and you are a nerd with no life. Hit batting practice for 3 hours a day and get the girl and go to the party on the weekend.

8. on 08 Apr 2013 at 11:03 amPat

From a student’s perspective in many math classrooms:
Sports practice = immediate reward. The final product is something that they are using and can see value in.
Math practice = pointless drilling with no end in sight, no connection to anything useful. Many problems and lessons are filled with little context that they cannot grasp onto. I’ve noticed when I’m teaching a lesson within a context and can connect to something genuinely awesome (real world related or not) students are more willing to see the value in the practice/studying

9. on 08 Apr 2013 at 11:06 amNico

As a student I know exercising my body will make me healthier.
As a student I highly doubt exercising my math skills will ever be useful. There’s no point because I won’t ever need these math skills.

10. on 08 Apr 2013 at 11:15 amMatt

@Nico: Practicing to make your body healthy is more important than practicing to make/keep your mind healthy?

11. on 08 Apr 2013 at 11:17 amJenny

I think there are plenty of student athletes who don’t want to do all those drills. They do them, but I think suggesting that they are excited to do those push ups and run those miles is a stretch.

That said, the payoff, playing in the big game, winning the race, making the varsity team, is a clearer payoff than doing well in math. At least for some kids.

The kids in AP calculus probably don’t whine about the math problems as much because they see a payoff (college, grad school, career options) from that practice.

12. on 08 Apr 2013 at 11:25 amBrian Jackson

I thought I’d share a couple thoughts as a homeschooling Dad:
The goals and benefits are perceived differently.
Benefits (satisfaction) from wrestling – or any sports practice for that matter – are greater: Greater emotional connection to the “benefit” (i.e. possibility of the “win” of the match or a sporting game) versus the benefit of doing well on the next test. Also perceived differently is a more immediate reward of fame/affirmation/respect from peers because of success at sports/dance/arts versus the eventual reward of “good grades” leading to success at career/life. Even if the student never wins a wrestling match, there is a more externally-visible side benefit of being in better shape.

P.S. I enjoy your blog, although I don’t visit as much as I’d like.

13. on 08 Apr 2013 at 11:27 amJen

One of the key statements in Khan’s response is that kids see the coach as “being on their side” and the math teacher as their “adversary”. What does this say about the culture, perceived or actual, of too many math classrooms? How does traditional grading promote this teacher vs. student or math vs. student culture? Kids are willing to do the conditioning & drills at sports practice because they see the goal – winning the game – and they don’t want to let their team/coach down. What if we could create a learning environment where students wanted to do the math so they wouldn’t let their classmates/teacher down?

14. on 08 Apr 2013 at 11:28 amPete Welter

Sports practice leads to an actual game – a chance for the results of that hard work to be put to use. And that game will probably happen next week. The payoff for school math is far enough off – years – for most students to be forever. See what happens if you have a wrestler doing just pushups for 5 or 10 years without using it.

And just learning math so you’re ready for the next course doesn’t count. It would be like doing pushups so that you’re ready to do sit-ups.

15. on 08 Apr 2013 at 11:31 amKaren

I know I didn’t enjoy running sprints anymore than I enjoyed doing worksheet drills. I think it’s a stretch to say that students like them–they just can immediately see/feel the benefit. In math, you don’t feel your brain stretching like you feel your muscles burning.

There’s also this super big glaring goal staring you in the face: BEAT THE OTHER TEAM. What is the end goal in algebra class? Survive the year? Grades aren’t motivating to a kid who doesn’t want to (or doesn’t think they can) go to college.

By the time you’re in high school, you’re only playing sports that you’re halfway good at (or you got cut), so there’s less risk of being the team idiot like there is in classes the kids are forced to take. Go down to elementary school kickball and you’ll find the kids moaning and dying at running around the bases (because they are forced to be there, as opposed to being good at it and choosing to continue)

16. on 08 Apr 2013 at 11:36 amGordon Cooke

In sports practice, they know they are eventually going to use their skills to play a game, i.e., apply their skills in a real / not contrived situation.

In math you practice so you can become proficient at…more practice. where is the real game? the test at the end?

17. on 08 Apr 2013 at 11:42 amScott

There are no famous math people making Millions of dollars with people chasing them, no matter how they act, taking pictures and wanting to write their stories.

Maybe what we need is a national-televised math competition yearly with sponsors and scantily clad people hocking their wares. Maybe even one each season (I can see it now, Algebra, Geometry, Calculus, and topology)

Would coffee then be considered a performance enhancing drug (I know not for you, Dan)

18. on 08 Apr 2013 at 11:59 amob

I think the fundamental difference is that you’re never confused in sports.

When the coach says “do 100 pushups” you know exactly what to do. You’ve done push ups before, or the coach has already shown you how to do a push up. He can walk around and look at how you’re doing the push ups and correct you, but you pretty much have a clear idea of what to do. If you didn’t know what a push up was or didn’t know how to do one, you could just look around at your peers and pretty much get it.

When you are doing math problems you feel stupid. You don’t even know where to begin. Nobody likes feeling stupid.

19. on 08 Apr 2013 at 11:59 amDon

I think social acceptance plays a part, but not as big as some here seem to assign it. The word “social” might play something into it, though, since I think even solitary achievements like sprints are done in a setting more supportive of collaborative achievement than the average math classroom.

I’d wager there’s a bigger component to do with a greater sense of achievement and completion. Sprints and wrestling practice have a conclusion that students can clearly identify. I think a lot of activity in the math classroom – particularly ones that stress applying the formula regardless of understanding – mean students spend a lot of time not knowing what they’re doing and therefor now knowing when they have “won.”

If you’re going to draw parallels to sports then it might be better to compare many math classrooms to sending the students out to play volleyball without telling them all the rules. That ball you knocked over didn’t get you a point because you tapped it up four times before going over the net. Sure, when you DO successfully get the point you get that sense of achievement – but it was tempered by the fact that you weren’t sure you WERE going to get the point.

Sports drills have certainty that math students don’t usually feel. How much of that is fixable in the classroom and how much is cultural? I’m not sure I know. Would a math classroom that tried to parallel the gym only drill/repeat/grind out the well-known activities?

20. on 08 Apr 2013 at 12:05 pmRyan

The first thing that popped into my head was “I remember trying out for a bunch of different sports until I found the one I was the best at…”

And then, thinking about math, we never really get the chance to do that. We have to play a full year of whatever math we are in before we can try out a ‘different’ math. And many times, that ‘different’ math seems an awful lot like the same math.

If I had to do a full year of swimming, a full year of basketball, a full year of football, a full year of hockey, and a full year of soccer before I could do my first full year of track or ultimate frisbee, I think I would have given up long ago and thrown my hands in the air as a sign of defeat.

I wish I could follow this with “So let’s do this . . . ” and offer forth some great solution, but I don’t really think I have one. A large part of me understands the importance of building your basic operational skills in your younger years and then focusing on algebraic manipulation after that (with a sojourn into geometry). However, this perspective is one often gained by age and experience.

I do think many people have hit an important point about the immediacy of the reward, be it biochemical, social, or physical, that sports offer when compared to the long game of mathematics.

21. on 08 Apr 2013 at 12:07 pmSteve

Speaking as a track coach / math teacher, I really think the biggest difference is that the kids signed up for it in sports. they knew what they were getting into, and if they want to quit, they are totally able to do so. Askigym teachers if they have 100% participation in their classes…

That said, there’s still an awful lot of whining on sports teams too. Give them a hard workout and you know a bunch of people will object.

22. on 08 Apr 2013 at 12:15 pmErik

Agree strongly with #2.
Ask phys ed. teachers how excited the students are to do fifty pushups.

23. on 08 Apr 2013 at 12:21 pmPete Welter

However, even though Phys. Ed. involves physical activity, it has the same problem as school math – lots of exercises for no real payoff – that’s different than practices that prepare for an actual game.

A book that addresses this topic head on: Making Learning Whole by David Perkins.

24. on 08 Apr 2013 at 12:22 pmKevin H.

Dan, Khan’s comment seems quite similar to the reasons Sam Shah gives for supporting Standards-Based Grading, or the ones you give for using your Concept Checklist. In all these cases, the teacher shifts from a perceived adversarial role to a helping role by giving them actionable feedback on what they need to relearn and then giving them a chance to reassess.

I get that you think students find Khan’s videos to be boring and kind of pointless when they’re not connected to anything important in their lives. But students are also turned off by thinking their teacher is just looking for ways to deduct points.

It seems to me that you and Sal are in basic agreement here, and it’s not a trivial agreement. There are lots of teachers out there whose approach to reassessment is “tough luck, you should have tried harder the first time,” or “it’s not fair to the people who got it right the first time if I give you another try.”

Again, this doesn’t mean you and Sal agree on how to use his videos or structure lessons. But for teachers who neither make their lessons very meaningful nor adjust their relationship to students vis a vis grades, simply making this adjustment can be a big improvement.

25. on 08 Apr 2013 at 12:33 pmChris Robinson

A lot of us grow up watching sports with our friends and families. Not a lot of us grow up talking and doing math. For better or worse, sports holds a significant place in our culture. I would guess that sports (and proficiency in sports) is held in higher esteem than education (or proficiency in math). It’s a badge of honor to do well in sports. Not so much in math for the majority of us. This is a cultural issue in my opinion. Changing a culture is very difficult, and until this change takes place, where we place the value of being educated above the value of doing well in sports, students will continue to choose to work hard for sports but not in the classroom. I’m generalizing, of course, since there are examples of students working hard in all areas of life. These need to be the models of and for our culture.

26. on 08 Apr 2013 at 12:41 pmMax

If you want to go all #gradskool on this, you might enjoy Carol Sansone’s work on the relationships among utility (usefulness), motivation, and interest. Here’s one citation:

Fraughton, T., Sansone, C., Butner, J., Zachary, J. (2011). Interest and performance when learning online: Providing utility value information can be important for both novice and experienced students. International Journal of Cyber Behavior, Psychology and Learning, 1(2), 1-15. Published, 03/2011.

27. on 08 Apr 2013 at 12:42 pma different Dave

If I cut 5 seconds off my best time at the track, I will know undeniably that I have improved.

Math (and other academic subjects) has two big obstacles to this:
– we’re aiming to build problem-solving mastery, and that can’t be measured concretely
– each grade/test is on different material than the previous, so I can’t establish a true best score and aim to improve it.

(I also think there’s some physical aspect — our bodies release happy chemicals when we engage in physical exertion and when resting afterward, and as much as I love math, it doesn’t quite do the same thing for me.)

28. on 08 Apr 2013 at 12:54 pmDan R

When I was growing up a lot of coaches were math teachers. I suppose it was because Math like sports was about drilling and training more than making conjectures and solving real problems?Math was taught the same way sports were coached. And there is this in sports – if you don’t practice well (work hard, give it your best) you don’t play. So in math, what’s the consequence of not getting all your answers correct? You get a bad grade.

29. on 08 Apr 2013 at 12:57 pmKevin H.

Different Dave, the grading system that Dan advocates (his Concept Checklist) does in fact track your learning by concept over time, so you can see improvement. Khan Academy also has this feature, allowing you to see your progress over time.

30. on 08 Apr 2013 at 1:17 pmDan Anderson

Two reasons:
1. Immediate and clear feedback. I can make that fade away basket now because I tried it 50 times from the same spot and have hit the last 10 in a row.
2. Evolution. We’ve evolved as physical beings and being better at physical things makes us survive more often (more food, and hence copulation). Thinking deeply has benefits yes, but not anywhere as directly as being able to move quickly and strongly.
Yes?

31. on 08 Apr 2013 at 1:40 pmMandy Jansen

Sports — practice actually leads to using it in a competition that you might actually win or lose. The practice gets put to use, and there is a real payoff or outcome to work toward.

Math problems — what happens when you practice these? You get better at doing them… for what? For the right to practice more? What is the “experience” that the school math practice leads to? Nothing in the near term?

To make this about me, I HATED practicing sports in P.E. in school, but I LOVED doing math problems. Why? I did not get better at anything athletic, so it was an exercise in futility. And I wasn’t on a team of any sort, always picked last, etc. When I worked on math, I was good at it, I constantly got better, and I was chosen for academic teams, etc.

I have always understood others’ math anxiety by how much angst I felt over going to P.E. class. I don’t have math anxiety, but performance anxiety over publicly performing anything athletic? I totally have that.

Basically, sports can be terribly not engaging for some people who (a) don’t have a decent base of skill as a starting point, (b) lack “ability” (if we believe that exists), and (c) dislike competition (I hated being asked to be on academic teams.).

But I am also here to say that it’s possible to be the girl who did quadratics for three hours a day and still also had a social life. Not being good at sports didn’t negatively inhibit my social calendar. Being good at math meant that everyone wanted my help, so I made money tutoring!

32. on 08 Apr 2013 at 1:48 pmKelly O'Shea

First, there are plenty of kids who feel the inverse (love math practice, hate sports practice). Why do we not think that’s true? Math is required, sports are not.

But anyway, you aren’t being immediately judged on every move you make in sports practice. Grading things kills them pretty quickly. (There’s definitely judgement in sports practice, but it’s not of the same frequency nor the same consequences.)

If you aren’t working hard enough in sports practice, you might get cut from the team. If you get cut from the team (or if you just don’t want to do sports practice), you might spend your afternoons doing something else instead. If you aren’t working hard enough in math class (or if you just don’t want to do math class), you might have to take the same class again. You might have a lot of adults yelling at you. There’s no endgame there until you stop being required to go to it.

And of course, there’s a lot more here. That’s just for starters.

33. on 08 Apr 2013 at 2:21 pmPatrick Honner

Kids on math teams exert themselves solving hard problems, and then demand new and bigger challenges. This offers a more appropriate comparison to sports team practice.

Are all the students in mandatory physical education classes begging for more sit-ups every day? Not based on my experience.

34. on 08 Apr 2013 at 2:38 pmpam

I’m pretty sure that the kids on the losing teams at my school are not thrilled about practicing. In fact, I mostly hear complaints about this or that practice. I am also not in the camp of “let’s give the kids endless, mindless skills practice.” On the rare occasion that I do assign a bit of skill-based practice, there are two or three quick problems.

Recently, in a polynomial unit, my kids had to multiply a binomial by a trinomial a few times (like three times). There was also a problem of a 7-term polynomial being multiplied by a trinomial. I told my students that this problem was “challenge by choice” but that I really wanted them to try it – because it was kind of fun in an algebra geeky sort of way. It was really my subversive way to get them to understand the distributive property and that “FOIL” isn’t the best acronym. About 90% of my students tried the hard (or tedious) problem; a bunch did it correctly and most of them came really close.

Ultimately, it’s about a sense of accomplishment – whatever the practice is for.

35. on 08 Apr 2013 at 2:38 pmAmber Caldwell

As a coach I have had students cheat. They don’t run the assigned laps or shave off the corners. They miscount the push ups or do not put their best effort forth. There are always students in class and in sports who do not give 100%. I personally do not see a huge difference. There are students in my AP Calculus classes who do not need me to motivate them. They do the extra work to prepare so they can be the best. These students are comparable to the athletes who are successful. Successful students and successful athletes are intrinsically motivated. As a teacher and as a coach, I can encourage, but a student must supply the effort.

36. on 08 Apr 2013 at 2:46 pmKate Fisher

To build on the comments of a different Dave (27), Don (19) and ob (18), I think it comes back to measurement and feedback.

When students are doing athletic drills, they know how to measure their performance…they count how many push-ups, they time their laps…and they can evaluate whether or not they are improving. In the traditional math class, students aren’t evaluating their own performance, only the teacher is. The student has to wait to get a graded paper back that tells them how they’re doing, and many of those papers have no suggestions for improvement.

Doug Reeves points out that when kids play video games, they receive “honest and immediate feedback.” That’s what keeps them trying over and over again, often in rapid succession, to improve…they know whether or not they are improving because they understand how to measure their progress: points, levels, etc.

What honest and immediate feedback are students getting in many math classes?

37. on 08 Apr 2013 at 2:57 pmAnthony Rossetti

The athletic rigor is glamorized. The academic rigor is demonized. The kids expect it at wrestling practice. Their parents can to a large degree understand and push the extra work at practice. Many parents hate math too and don’t encourage the work.

38. on 08 Apr 2013 at 2:59 pmWilliam Carey

It’s interesting that he picks out one of the big changes of the switch from Classical education to the Prussian model without noting the other. The change he notes is in the method of education, from individualized and conversational to industrial, the one he omits is in the purpose. The purpose of classical education was the formation of the soul into one befitting a free person and the transmission of the cultural practices of the educated. The purpose of Prussian education was the creation of a skilled workforce.

What sort of vocational training is our math curriculum? What jobs are we preparing students for? Unfortunately, our curriculum is vocational training for [jobs that no longer exist](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harvard_Computers). That’s why it’s so incoherent to students. We’re preparing them for jobs that we’ve outsourced to silicon.

Sal’s right that a return to a democratized version of individualized instruction makes learning more way more valuable. What he misses (that I think three act math nails) is transforming the cultural context of mathematics from vocational training in computation (ugh) to the formation and transmission of the cultural practice of pattern-making and reasoning.

39. on 08 Apr 2013 at 3:46 pmRussell Helmstedter

Part of the assumption is flawed. I would argue that not all wrestlers are excited to do pushups in practice. However, they deal with it because they want to be on the team. It is voluntary. If they don’t want to deal with the push ups, they don’t have to be on the team. Many students are excited to do pushups because it is a part of something they want to do. All students are forced to take math whether they want to or not.

I’ve worked with high school marching band programs. We would typically begin practice with stretching, followed by warm up exercises. These would be relatively simple movements, such as marking time for eight counts, moving forward for eight counts, and repeating. Many students complained that it was boring and claimed it served no purpose since we rarely did that exact move in our field shows. As the marching coach, I could see a huge difference in their technique on the days we did a warm up vs not doing a warm up. The burden was on me as the coach to build that connection so the students can see the benefit as well.

While I am not trying to argue that drill-based math process is the best way to teach and learn mathematics, practice is necessary. Returning to wrestling practice, pushups make you stronger. Being stronger helps you beat your opponent. That connection is easy to make, so more of the students buy in. If we can create a need for the mathematics, like in Brian Miller’s Investigator Training (http://mrmillermath.wordpress.com/2013/02/27/investigator-training/), more kids will buy into practicing math.

40. on 08 Apr 2013 at 4:46 pmGregT

Most of it’s been said, but just to tack one other thing in:
Fringe benefits.

You do a bunch of pushups, it builds muscle strength, it makes you feel better about obesity (another big problem these days), and you feel a certain amount of exhilaration afterwards.

You do a bunch of math problems, it does increase your mental capacities (but as was remarked, that’s not so tangible – and is it not increasing our sedentary lifestyles?), it may increase confidence (but the material will only get harder once this stuff is mastered), and you may not end up getting any of them right in the end (easier to screw up than running around the track).

41. on 08 Apr 2013 at 4:51 pmNathan Kraft

Hopefully I’m not repeating what anyone else has already said.

We try much harder in sports practice because we’re preparing for a game.

In most math classrooms, there is no “game”. There’s just practice.

42. on 08 Apr 2013 at 4:53 pml hodge

Ya, I don’t think Sal or Charlie played a lot of sports if that is their impression of how practice usually goes for most teams.

43. on 08 Apr 2013 at 5:05 pmJethro

44. on 08 Apr 2013 at 5:19 pmEducation Realist

Like many other commenters, I disagree with the premise. Lots of kids don’t enthusiastically leap into sports practice, and I have never had kids groan or complain when I “release” them for practicing the lesson of the day.

What I get, if things don’t go well, are a lot of off-task kids. And in that case, on a normal day, I know instantly it’s one of two things: either I didn’t explain the concept well, or the practice problems didn’t offer a good progression from instantly doable to increasingly complex. I spend a lot of time making sure my practice problems logically progress. So usually, if I don’t see kids working right after I release them, I call them back together and try to see what element of the explanation I missed first time round. I go through it a few more times, invent a few more problems, and be absolutely sure the kids are ready to go. And they generally appreciate that I saw their confusion, which makes them more receptive to a second time around.

Since getting kids to work the minute I release them has always been my top priority from the moment I started teaching, it pleases me that I don’t have too many off-task kids anymore. I’m better at spotting confusion and less likely to let them go before they have comprehension, and I’m extremely good at building or picking progressive practice problems. But even when they were off-task, it was just goofing around, no whining.

45. on 08 Apr 2013 at 6:23 pmJustin Lanier

Plenty of interesting things have been said. Here’s a further wrinkle. Great basketball players will practice the same skills for years, throughout their whole careers. Mathematicians do not. Once I’m comfortable solving a linear equation, practice no longer does me any good. Not so for free throws. That makes the endeavors feel different to me at bottom. Hard-nosed and repetitive skills work in sports is essential and beneficial. In math, it’s a chore if you “get it” and unhelpful if you don’t. FWIW.

46. on 08 Apr 2013 at 6:27 pmAWF

Um, the comparison should be math class v. gym class and then you’ll see that they’re not that different. MANY, MANY kids detest sports as much as MANY, MANY kids detest math. In school, they have no choice – they have to attend both. I am neither a math nor a gym teacher and I would teach math HANDS DOWN before I ever taught gym.

After school there is a choice, and the kids that show up for sports after school presumably have some much stronger motivation to persevere through the drills that are a part of the sport.

Also, have you ever coached 7th grade girls soccer!??? They are hardly there simply for the drills or the competition or the games or even the glory (there is very little glory in 7th grade girls soccer). They want one more reason to spend another hour or two together, and for some kids it is worth the effort of participating on the team.

47. on 08 Apr 2013 at 6:47 pmhillby

Endorphins.

48. on 08 Apr 2013 at 9:07 pmBrian

I love the talk about how sports involves an “actual game” and how there is a “real payoff.” No, there is not! It’s a game! Not a single high school wrestler is ever going to “use” their wrestling skills once they’re out of school, and they are certainly not going to be fending off alligators for their survival. I think in our attempt to make math “useful” and “relevant” we forget that it can also be fun and intrinsically challenging, just like something athletic, whether competitive or not.

If we made kids run and do pushups for six hours a day, they would welcome the chance to sit quietly with a pencil and paper. We shouldn’t be surprised that when we make them sit still for six hours a day, they enjoy doing something physical when given the chance.

And finally, I think coaches are much less likely to give unchallenging drill work to their athletes than math teachers are to give unchallenging assignments. A coach would immediately add challenge if an athlete was doing everything correct with perfect form, yet in math classes, we make students feel like they aren’t very good at math unless everything they turn in is nearly perfect. And a coach who sees an athlete struggling with something is going to stop and correct. Math classes just go on without you…

49. on 08 Apr 2013 at 11:02 pmR.G.

Sorry. This sounds like a typical US American discussion to me. The origin may be the Prussian educational pattern where the young folks had to be educated physically to serve the nation. These times are over. But you can still make more money with your body than by brain.

In Europe, sports in schools are a welcome diversion balancing the mostly sitting habit of modern life.

You want to make math fun? Then follow the advice in “”What drive us?”. Make it socially accepted, rich with practical goals, reward the good students, and support autonomous group work.

50. on 09 Apr 2013 at 12:07 amJim Noble

I am with 46 AWF – I think student enjoyment of sport, particularly school sport is over estimated and that there are reasonable comparisons between teaching physical education and maths. It is generally preferred by those that are ‘perceived’ to be good at it. (underlying implication about the way ‘good’ is measured in both.) As a result, it is not often enjoyed by those that perceive themselves or are given the impression that they are bad at it. Also, PE probably suffers from a misconception/disagreement about what the overall aims are, like mathematics!

51. on 09 Apr 2013 at 3:10 amJason Brasel

Endorphines?

Potential pay-off from working hard at wrestling practice: winning, for some. And even if you don’t win, there is the excitement of competition.

Potential pay-off from working hard at math practice: passing a test?

Personally, I get the same sense of satisfaction from solving a really hard math problem as I do from successfully competing. But it might be harder to convince kids that the pay-off is worth it when it comes to math practice.

52. on 09 Apr 2013 at 4:08 amTim Stirrup

I’m with Jim and 46,

The comparison is wrong. Those attending wrestling practice and doing all those push ups have chosen to be there as the ‘elite’ of that particular sport. They are not those forced to do sport each week when the last thing they want or feel they can do is a push up.

As a maths and PE teacher, I can think of many who hated sports, and the challenge then was getting them to enjoy sport, so that they can be out of breath, so that they can the benefit of physical exercise and so of course, the methods used for that group were often very different to those used for the 1st XV rugby team – not always of course (and now I am feeling analogy fatigue about to set in…).

53. on 09 Apr 2013 at 4:16 amChris

Own choice or not.

One problem is today’s neoliberal society is that we (students and teachers alike) don’t like being told what to do. Sometimes you have to do stuff that is less interesting than playing Bioshock Infinite or doing sports. “You can’t always get what you want”.

I don’t buy the ‘competition/winning’ argument, or at least is can never be the key to finding out what will work for other subjects. Because where there are winners there losers who will get demotivated.

By the way, I think “Sal Khan or anybody else in the drill-based math proficiency software business” sounds pretty degrading.

54. on 09 Apr 2013 at 4:29 amMary Beth

Check out Glasser’s Choice Theory…

55. on 09 Apr 2013 at 4:43 amCurtis

Realistically, they are more alike than different. In sports, just like in math, there is a time and place for drills. However, in both there is a need improvisation and the practice of improvisation. Successful math and sport practices allow students and players to use their skills flexibly to adapt to different situations. Good coaches don’t just drill, they teach players how to improvise, the same is true about good teachers.

56. on 09 Apr 2013 at 4:45 amKelly Bow

At the end of each year, I have a majority of my students who tell me that it was the practice in my class that elevated their confidence levels in math which helped them perform well on tests and generally changed their attitude about math.

Administration, parents, and often times other educators send the message to students that practicing anything academic is a way we burden children and there is a lot of pressure on teachers to not have students practice.

Understanding that attitude in education, I try to change that culture in my classroom. A quote from one student when I was explaining the usefulness of formulas, “Formulas are comforting.” This is simple but a smart way to look at structure, any kind of solid and reliable structure…..it is comforting.

Our job is to change the culture or attitude about mathematics; we can all become Mathletic Directors!

57. on 09 Apr 2013 at 4:48 amSara

It all has to do with passion. We have got to enter academia through the window of a kid’s passion to get in there sometimes. I did the 3 questions a couple days before spring break using catch up I think it was. The lowest kid in my class was all over it! He could dig into his mathematical intuition and come out a winner because he was finally excited about what he was seeing. It is all passion.

58. on 09 Apr 2013 at 5:49 amRaj Shah

First, as several people have mentioned, not all kids find sports practice satisfying. But let’s talk about the ones who do.

Sports are appealing for many reasons including:
1. Sports are glamorized in American culture. Many kids watch a lot of sports. The best players are idolized. And so, kids want to emulate them. E.g. Kids pretend the clock is winding down and they are shooting the game winning shot. (Pretty sure there is no analogous experience like this in math class or math practice).

2. Sports involve competition and it’s human nature to compete. Kids want to play in the games even if they don’t really mean anything in the long run.

There’s several more reasons, but those are two of the top ones.

Now, once you have a kid who has bought in to liking a sport for some the above reasons, it’s not so hard to get them to practice.

Math typically works the other way, we try and convince you the practice is worth it first. “Get good at this, I promise it’ll be worth it!”

As Dan Pink points out in the book Drive, intrinsic motivation requires a autonomy, mastery and purpose. A kid who aspires to be great (or even good) at a sport has all three. He/she has autonomy (to a large degree) in the game where you apply all the skills learned in practice in creative ways. He/she can easily see how practice leads to mastery when it pays off in the weekly games. And he/she has “higher” purpose of achieving something as a team.

Whereas in math, we rarely give kids autonomy to go in a direction they choose and we don’t do a good job of giving them a purpose for math.

Of course, these are generalizations. There are kids who love math and see the benefits of practice, but there seem to be fewer of them and I think a big reason is because of the framework in which we try and teach math. We have a lot to learn from the sports world.

59. on 09 Apr 2013 at 6:08 amBridget

I’m not sure if any of the other comments suggested this…

But, I think another angle would be “growth mindset”.

Students believe that they will get better at a sport with that kind of focused practice.

Intelligence is different in a lot of people’s minds–some feel that you are born with a maximum potential. They have already decided that they can’t do something before they even give it a chance. So why bother with the intense practice.

I spend a lot of time working on math confidence with students–building them up so that they see that they can be successful. When they feel successful…they are usually willing to do more.

60. on 09 Apr 2013 at 6:26 amAriel

With exercise or any sport, the more one practices, the better one becomes. To gain muscle, you need to lift more. To gain endurance, you run further. It’s the only way to improve.

With math (or any subject), doing more problems doesn’t necessarily mean that the outcome is better understanding. For some students, yes. For others, they don’t need more problems. They need different problems. They need to demonstrate application of the process. Or they need more simple problems. It’s not necessarily a one solution fits all.

61. on 09 Apr 2013 at 6:42 amSantosh Zachariah

Try running a season’s worth of sports practice without a “scrimmage” and see what happens.

People practice (anything) because they get to ‘play’ and they can see how their practice helps with the increased satisfaction when they ‘play.’

A typical school math curriculum is so packed with arcane skills that there is no time (or concept) of a scrimmage, a league, or even free play.

That said, developing the ‘game/s’ is going to be extremely difficult. In sport, one typically has the game pre-defined, and then the skills and practice follow. In school math, the skills are pre-defined, and we are trying to figure out games that work with these skills.

62. on 09 Apr 2013 at 7:05 amtscott4u

calculus=wrestling
algebra1=freshman PE
I am a teacher and coach.
Faulty Premise=Invalid Analogy

63. on 09 Apr 2013 at 7:08 amLMacfarlane

I like what Steve (#21) said: in sports, “if they want to quit, they are totally able to do so. Askigym teachers if they have 100% participation in their classes…

That said, there’s still an awful lot of whining on sports teams too. Give them a hard workout and you know a bunch of people will object.”

Beyond that, in high school the students who are on athletic teams are the ones who are good at sports. Plenty of people have been weeded out because of disinterest, low ability, or their own fear of low ability (speaking from experience here). If math classes consisted of only those who are interested in math, good at math, and not terrified of being bad at math, our work as teachers would be very different. Less rewarding, sometimes. Less maddening, often. Different.

Why do many athletes find working hard at practice more satisfying than many students find working hard in math class? Because the athletes have been pre-selected as those who find working hard at practice satisfying.

64. on 09 Apr 2013 at 7:18 amSky

Athletic practice often adjusts to the difficulty level of the person continuously, and additional repetition has value.

Algebraic learning is discrete. More problems *can* cause a breakthrough, but often they are just more of something that’s too difficult or too easy. No self-adjustments to the proper difficulty level.

If athletic practice were like algebraic practice, you’d either be asked to live 5 pounds for an hour or 500 pounds for an hour. Neither is productive or fun.

Flow probably plays into this, the balance of of challenge and ability.

65. on 09 Apr 2013 at 7:25 amMichael

Sadly, it is still cool to be a jock and it is still not cool to be a nerd. Working out sustains the self image of coolness while doing math practice sustains the self image of nerdiness.

It is my personal belief that the issue is rooted in our culture, not necessarily just in the academics.

Drill and Kill works to a point, but just like in sports drills are important, but eventually you have to scrimmage to put all those skills to a higher form of practice. In math, students need opportunities of higher forms of practice to put all their drilling to the test. Both types of practice are necessary. The key is that the participant is willing to suffer through both parts with the mindset that they are somewhat beneficial to them.

Math may not be viewed in our student cultures as being beneficial. Perhaps we need more marketing.

66. on 09 Apr 2013 at 7:41 amDan Meyer

Hey you guys. Thanks for the thoughtful, on-topic responses. My own response echoes Nathan Kraft’s (elaborated here) but a lot of you guys have broadened my perspective. I went ahead and pulled comments up to the main post from Matt, Pete Welter, Steve, Chris Robinson, Dan Anderson, Mandy Jansen, Kelly O’Shea, Pam, Nathan Kraft, Justin Lanier, Hillby, R.G., Bridget, and Santosh Zachariah.

@Kevin H., just because I think Khan is wrong on video-based instruction doesn’t mean I think he’s wrong about everything. Competency-based instruction (or standards-based grading) ultimately treats a student and her knowledge more accurately and fairly. I agree with him there. I don’t happen to think his assessments are all that valid, though. There’s no shortage of ways I could demonstrate mastery on this proportions assessment, for one example, without actually having mastered proportions.

67. on 09 Apr 2013 at 7:59 amNoah

This is a bit of an amalgamation of many of the ideas posted above, but I think it’s worth distilling the broad and theoretical down to this simple idea:

People like doing things they are good at.

In the initial example of 50 push-ups vs. 6 math problems, neither is a necessarily easy task. However, the breakdown occurs differently for these two tasks. If we change the 6 math problems to 1, it may be less daunting, but the difficulty level does not change. Each problem is it’s own brand of difficult. If we change the 50 push-ups to 1, the likelihood of experienced success dramatically increases – (almost) EVERYONE can do one push-up.

The two tasks then become this:

Push-ups: Try to do one pushup –> experience immediate success –> repeat –> challenge myself to experience success as long as I possibly can –> enjoy the “challenge” of 50 push-ups.

Math problems: Try to do one math problem –> experience success only at the end of a lengthy discovery process that may include failures (and I don’t like failures) –> if success is experienced, start over with a new problem and a new set of initial failures –> detest the “challenge” of 6 math problems.

That, I believe, is the difference. It’s why you don’t see as many kids LOVING figure skating practice as you do football practice. I experience success when I run hard, and anyone can run hard. I must experience failure a lot before I can pull off that triple-loop-di-loop (I’m obviously a professional figure skating judge). It’s why you don’t see as many kids enjoying violin practice. Early success is not easy.

I’m not a math instructor, so I don’t know the best way to do this or if it’s possible, but it seems to me that the best way to correct this is to build in early successes. I’m not sure how you would do that without completely deconstructing a problem and asking every question about its steps, which seems like a less than good idea to me. But some of the things I’ve seen from Dan seem to get at this. Don’t start with an equation, start with a relatively simple question to establish “the question”. That is a great early opportunity for the student to experience success. …and then perhaps positive reinforcement of successfully completed steps? Don’t know how to do that.

68. on 09 Apr 2013 at 8:00 amGeorge

As someone who has been subbing P.E. a lot lately I can assure you the majority kids are not begging to be driven to exhaustion, in fact its slightly disturbing how lazy they wish to be, many won’t even dress or participate. I’ve told hundreds of high school kids to go run a couple laps and the overwhelming response is slumping shoulders and groans similar to assigning math problems from a text.

When I say we’re going to play basket ball a small minority will be very happy, while others are asking if they can have a soccer ball, a football, etc. There are always a significant amount that aren’t interested in any balls and just want to sit around and do nothing.

Its fair and interesting to compare math and p.e. but Khan’s description of kids begging to be exhausted is atypical and not representative of mandatory physical education. Maybe its the “mandatory” thing that turns teenagers off?

69. on 09 Apr 2013 at 8:41 amChuck

Everyone is focusing on the psychological, but there is also the physical difference –> Physical stimulation triggers the brain to release endorphins, hence the runner’s high.

Solving a math problem is rewarding when it takes you a while and you know you got it right, then you get decreasing marginal return with each successive iteration.

70. on 09 Apr 2013 at 8:55 amChris Robinson

How would this analogy (even if it’s relevance is in question) play in a culture other than the American culture? Or any culture where sports is more glamorized than education?

71. on 09 Apr 2013 at 9:22 amJason Roy

I’ve coached lots of teams and taught lots of math classes. There have been teams were kids are dying to do pushups and other years where the chemistry wasn’t as perfect. My math classes have been the same way. I’ve definitely seen entire classes of kids show up to math classes just as eagerly as any practice. I think in either group when I’ve been able to steer towards something like one of Seth Godin’s Tribes are when I have been most successful.

72. on 09 Apr 2013 at 9:26 amMary

I think it’s about feedback. I have students that will ask to stay in for recess if they can to Khan Academy math. They get immediate feedback for each problem, AND they are interested in earning points. Enough points gets you a cool new avatar on your profile.

73. on 09 Apr 2013 at 9:40 amDaniel

To me it is about what the practice looks like. If we think of math practice as the type of practice most of us were used to, I can see why many kids might be disengaged from that sort of practice. I have had the opportunity to see kids, practice math with the use of games, from k-11. They are practicing math skills, but it doesn’t seem like practice. They are enjoying it. They are having fun “doing the math”

74. on 09 Apr 2013 at 10:31 amsylvia martinez

“Expertise in tennis requires lots of practice; it’s hard to improve your swing without spending a lot of time on the court. You learn to pull back and follow through with just the right movement so the ball lands where you want, and eventually you can do this without even thinking about it. But to cite an example like that to justify homework is an example of what philosophers call begging the question. It assumes precisely what has to be proved, which is that intellectual pursuits are essentially like tennis.

The assumption that the two activities are analogous is an outgrowth of a doctrine known as behaviorism, widely associated with John B. Watson, B. F. Skinner, and their followers. On this view, all that matters are behaviors that can be seen and measured, and “man is an animal different from other animals only in the types of behavior he displays,” as Watson announced on the first page of his best-known book. Thus, it makes perfect sense that most of the principles of learning that emerge from the work of behaviorists were developed on lab animals. Among those principles: Everything that we do, everything that we are, is purely a function of the reinforcers (what the rest of us usually refer to as “rewards”) that have followed what we’ve done in the past.”

Kohn goes on to say that practicing something only works if it’s practicing something you understand. Kids who practice math they don’t understand are are not being helped, and potentially harmed as they become frustrated and dependent on being told what to do.

Chapter 6 of The Homework Myth: Do Students Really Need Practice Homework? http://www.alfiekohn.org/teaching/practice.htm

75. on 09 Apr 2013 at 10:47 amMark

You can also be terrible at sports, and yet be successful. Baseball players only have to get on base about 30% of the time and they’re good.

In math, well, you fail if you know less than 60% of the material, and are good at around 80% or more.

76. on 09 Apr 2013 at 11:23 amBrendan Murphy

Lots of people mentioning that sports practice leads to a game. What is the game in math class? Yep, a test. (As mentioned only twice in the comments)

Math bowl if your a real geek.

What we really need are more competitions like robot wars or something that are a real “game” to test their skills.

77. on 09 Apr 2013 at 11:48 amGary Stager

Khan is using the term, “practice,” in a very casual and sloppy way. I fear that you and many of the commenters amplify that mistake.

A trumpet player, actor, cellist, dancer who is improving, does so not just through repetitive button pushing or by being yelled at by a coach/math teacher. Productive practice requires intrinsic motivation, reflective ability, attention to detail and a cognitive clarity that connects often the tiniest of personal goals to prior knowledge and past experiences. Understanding results from such clarity. Also, one cannot discount the value of relevance in this equation.

People do not get “good” at something by doing it 10,000 times without caring about it, finding personal value in the activity or by making connections to something bigger than yourself.

To paraphrase Seymour Papert, “We should stop wasting time finding tricks to teach kids math they hate and invent a mathematics that they can love.”

78. on 09 Apr 2013 at 2:50 pmSara

I am a very literal and linear person (so I have been told) so I actually polled my kids on index cards. Sports (and the others…violin, piano, video games, etc.) were satisfying because: 1) physical activity, movement, exercise. 2) Fame, recognition. 3) competition. Those were the top three categories. Math practice was less so because of 1) bordem 2) needing more of a challenge, 3) lack of immediate reward. Bordem. That hurt. We can increase competition, but then we get slammed by parents, though, that will help some. Needing more of a challenge…that can be fixed. My bad. Lack of immediate reward…Khan went after that one.

79. on 09 Apr 2013 at 4:37 pmMeredith

I think that we need to make math meaningful with an end insight just as athletes have a means to end. We have to give children a new way to see it. Take math and go to the amusement park and ask the kids to work on all of the math involved with getting the ride to be successful. Have a game programmer come in and talk about code and how it makes the games that kids enjoy. We would never say as adults well I’m just not a reader or a writer because it is not acceptable but is acceptable to say I am not a math person. It’s too hard. We need to change our views of math and meet children where they are in terms of math.

80. on 10 Apr 2013 at 2:41 amR.M. Berkman

One word: endorphins.

81. on 10 Apr 2013 at 6:13 amAngie

What if we approached education from the perspective of not every kid loves every subject and maybe we should help children learn what they want and help them be the best at what they want to learn? I play sports because I LOVE sports. I am willing to practice til exhaustion and do it over again the next day, but I also will read until I fall asleep or my eyes won’t focus anymore. Why? Because I want to. It means something to ME. Maybe once kids learn how to read and what numbers are and what they mean we should start taking our cue from them. Why do we always think we know what they SHOULD be passionate about or want to learn?

82. on 10 Apr 2013 at 6:54 amSantosh Zachariah

“As you deal with thumb-crossings, or fingerings for the F-sharp-minor scale, or chromatic scales in double thirds, it is hard to accept that these will eventually allow you to probe eternity in the final movement of Beethoven’s last sonata. Imagine that you are scrubbing the grout in your bathroom and are told that removing every last particle of mildew will somehow enable you to deliver the Gettysburg Address.”

Pianist Jeremy Denk in The New Yorker April 8th, 2013. p.41, recalling piano practice (probably in middle school).

The interesting thing to me about that page in the New Yorker, which covers ages 10 to 18, is that, while the practice was initially forced and hated, somewhere along the way the piano becomes so important to Denk that his teacher can write “Welcome to the summer during which you will learn to hate me” and Denk can later reflect “I’m the sort of person who, if he has to suffer, wants to suffer full time. In the couple of years that followed , I passed a commitment boundary.” Note that the willingness to practice did not come (as I assumed) *after* the commitment to the ‘game,’ but rather the commitment came later.

83. on 10 Apr 2013 at 9:08 amJason Dyer

I think that we need to make math meaningful with an end insight just as athletes have a means to end. We have to give children a new way to see it. Take math and go to the amusement park and ask the kids to work on all of the math involved with getting the ride to be successful. Have a game programmer come in and talk about code and how it makes the games that kids enjoy.

@Angie: Alas, while I have done this exact sort of thing (example: someone I know who is sort of the equivalent of that math guy from the TV show Numbers came in to explain how he uses mathematics to help with search and rescue) it doesn’t magically motivate students to practice math.

This reminds me a little of Roland Fryer’s controversial pay-students-for-good-grades study from a few years back. When the deal was simply “get this many dollars for an A, this many for a B, etc.” the effect was not that pronounced. The strong effect occured at a elementary school where students were paid by how many books they read. The reason (at least theorized) was that the students reading the books not only had an immediate reward but knew what to do to get there, whereas the students told “get good grades, we’ll pay you” were lost as to how to accomplish the task because it required changing more than one behavior.

In other words, it isn’t just the clear end result that it is motivating, it is the clear path to get there.

There’s also the students who aspire to be professional bowlers (well, I did have one) who probably are hard to motivate in all their classes, not just math.

84. on 10 Apr 2013 at 11:44 amGary Stager, Ph.D.

@santoash,

An anecdote by one accomplished pianist about a mean teacher/coach does not make a convincing argument for the sort of “you need to eat your vegetables before you get desert” theory of math education.

El Sistema, the Venezuelan Youth Orchestra movement which teaches hundreds of thousands of poor children annually to “probe eternity” the first time a kid picks up her instrument might be a more humane and effective model of teaching and learning for mathematics educators.

@Dan, I highly recommend you read this book – http://amzn.to/Yp3VTA Plow through the first couple chapters of fanboy reverence to get to a BIG payoff in terms of teaching and learning.

85. on 10 Apr 2013 at 12:22 pmDan Meyer

Endless bounty, this particular thread. Promoted a couple more comments to the top post. Thanks, all.

86. on 10 Apr 2013 at 1:07 pmR M

To build off of Gary Stager:

As a musician and math/music teacher:

Practice does not make perfect.

Perfect practice makes perfect.

Now onto my views:
I am going to speculate here that “hating” math is a learned behavior. It is a choice. It is something that we are told to do. Watching toddlers interact with the world, you will notice that they are eager to learn, to try new things, and to take risks. However, we go to elementary school are begin to explore “learning.” Here we are graded, we are judged, and we are put on a track that everyone is supposed to fit.

Our first exposure to math at school can be great. Kindergarten counting, sorting, telling time, etc. Most of that math is play (or at least in the great classes I have seen). Math at that age is figuring out the world through patterns (unless you look at the common core, where they are trying to remove patterns from the kindergarten class).

After kindergarten, we are bombarded by worksheets, algorithms and memorizing facts. How many people enjoy memorizing facts? How is this learning? How is this supposed to encourage students to pursue the subject?

Disliking math is a learned behavior. We dislike math class. This takes the motivation away from learning math.

Another point to make is what “learning” math actually means. Is the ability to solve a problem that millions of people have already solved mean you have learned math?

As Arnold Jacobs/Vince Cichowicz reminds us, we need to keep simple things simple and to keep a mind like a baby. Lets approach learning/teaching like toddlers do.

87. on 11 Apr 2013 at 10:47 amCorey

I also think the we have to point out the difference between learning muscle memory and abstract thinking. In sports, students focus on a time scale of seconds for an action to take place and them to react to it. In class, we ask them to reason in an abstract way for extended periods.

Also there are biochemical rewards for exercise that arn’t often felt in contemplative thought.

88. on 11 Apr 2013 at 5:42 pmRoanna Council

89. on 11 Apr 2013 at 6:33 pmMike C

If we

Try running a season’s worth of sports practice without a “scrimmage” and see what happens.

The kids would play games on their own. At least thats what I would have done.

90. [...] one make an all-mathematics variant — mathematical scrimmages, so to speak? The only games I could think of offhand in the same spirit as Tiny Games were some [...]

91. [...] Meyer (@ddmeyer) asked his blog readers the following question “What makes sports practice satisfying and how is sports practice different from math practice?” after hearing Sal Khan answer the same question in an interview. For anybody who teaches [...]

92. [...] one make an all-mathematics variant — mathematical scrimmages, so to [...]

93. on 18 Apr 2013 at 7:55 pmHomework and Coercion | i^i

[...] I ran across a post from Dan Meyer on the differences between math practice and sports practice.  I thought the arguments his commenters make about the fact that sports practice is voluntary, [...]

94. on 19 Apr 2013 at 6:47 amJosh Castle

The goal of sports practice is COORDINATION and STRENGTH, whereas the goal of math practice is DEFINITION and UNDERSTANDING. In other words, math practice takes a student through all the ins and outs and quirks and conundrums of a concept in hopes that they’ll begin to grasp the shape of the concept. Hypothetically speaking, if a student understood all of the implications of a concept immediately upon reading its description, then practice would probably be unnecessary. This hypothesis is supported by the fact that colleges allow students to CLEP out of courses; i.e., if they demonstrate UNDERSTANDING of the concepts via a test, then they are not required to put in the practice time (writing papers, doing homework, taking tests, etc.). But that’s not at all the case with sports practice; even if I understand football as well as John Madden, then it’s still not the case that I should be allowed to play in the NFL. I have neither the strength nor the coordination to be of any use on a real football team, even if I fully grasp all of the rules and roles and plays of the game. But, of course, the converse is also true: physical strength and coordination are of little use on a math test.

95. on 19 Apr 2013 at 7:20 amSantosh Zachariah

@Josh, I do agree with much of what you say, and would only add that when a college allows a student to CLEP out of a course, they are making the assumption that demonstration of an understanding of the concepts also demonstrates sufficient Coordination and Strength.

If one thinks of a course (in college or otherwise) as a ranger-led hike, there is an assumption that the students share a similar level of stamina, powers of observation, and fluency of vocabulary. Any student who is lacking in one of these will quickly find the hike boring or exhausting or both.

Much as “drill-and-kill” is unfashionable, I believe that part of the purpose of practice (in math or other subjects) is to develop the stamina, skills of observation (of patterns) and fluency of vocabulary. I am not saying the practice has to be solely outside the school, or without a teacher/ranger/guide.

96. on 19 Apr 2013 at 7:28 amBrendan Murphy

Those who skip the junior varsity and play on varsity team would be those who CLEP out of the elementary class.

97. on 19 Apr 2013 at 10:03 amJosh Castle

@Santosh: That’s a fair point.

98. on 24 Aug 2013 at 7:22 amKevin Hall

Just thought I’d point out this recent (free) e-book on Kindle, describing how a charter school in California went from 20th percentile to 99th percentile using Khan Academy last year. The thesis is that Sal Khan was exactly correct in his wrestling/math analogy, and that using KA in math class helps students build their self-reliance and confidence.

You may say the increase in test scores is an artifact of California’s state tests–do they only test shallow learning? (I don’t know, never seen them). But a result that strong isn’t nothing, and at a minimum, it points to the possibility that KA may actually help motivate students.

Then the question becomes, do you accept that form of motivation, in which students want to learn so they can get things right, raise their grades, and earn badges? Or do you think that kind of motivation is not valuable in comparison to the motivation that leads students to be persistent in puzzling over a challenging problem they’ve never seen before.

99. on 24 Aug 2013 at 7:24 amKevin Hall

Oops, forgot the link. Here is the blog post on KA’s blog: