Big-Brained Superheroes vs. Problem-Solving
Like many before us, The Big-Brained Superheroes Club has finally succumbed to the siren song of the popsicle stick. While stick bombs and chains are not entirely new to us, the more we work with them, the more we value their potential. Spatial reasoning, mechanical energy awareness, eye-hand coordination are all there. However, it wasn’t until this week that we’ve tried using the lowly popsicle stick to teach us such lofty skills as reverse-engineering and problem-solving. Unfortunately, those sticks didn’t fly. Yet.
We set out a short cobra-woven stick chain onto the table along with a bunch of loose sticks, and asked one of our most self-aware Big-Brained Superheroes to “make that”. And oh, did he seem to want to make that. But as for those reverse-engineering and problem-solving skills we were hoping he would show us…well…protesting is a problem-solving skill of sorts. He was not having it. Not even trying. “I just want you to teach me,” was the one recurring refrain.
The thing is, this big-brained superhero already possessed all the technical skills he needed to solve this problem and then some. As we mentioned, stick bombs and chains weren’t a wholly new activity for us. This wasn’t a “how many golf balls can fit in a 747”-type question to a kid who has likely never seen a golf ball or been inside of a 747. He had this. And yet he didn’t. Without even trying, he ran away.
No doubt that, in other areas and in other contexts, our young hero has solved all kinds of problems more complex than this one. He did, at one point, learn to walk, after all. And he’s played video games and solved math problems. But if he’s not transferring those skills and that Empowerment to other, simpler problems, then he’s not going to go running after the big problems that desperately need his big brain and superpowers. Instead, he’s going to be waiting around for someone to teach him the steps. Which means, he’s going to be spending his life solving problems that have already been solved.
Needless to say, we’re going to have to solve this.
What the “A”?: Why We See “STEM” as a Path to Failure
On a very rainy day last spring, a few kids from Yesler Community Center boisterously piled into a Honda Civic on their way to see a little movie that had just come out, which you may have heard of, called The Avengers. This was our first ever field trip reward for our after school homework help program, and in pretty much every measurable way, it was a failure. Kid there without permission slip; permission slip there without kid; no kid, no permission slip; you name it. As a result, we ended up with about half of our projected attendance. Keyword here: (F)ailure.
Now, if you’ve read The Big-Brained Superheroes Club Origins: Part 1 of X, you may have a sense of where this whole thing is going. This post is essentially a prequel to that one (We’ll leave it up to you to decide whether this prequel is more Christopher Nolan or George Lucas). In short, if we were purely STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) and data-driven decision-making were our only guiding star, The Big-Brained Superheroes Club would likely not exist today.
Upon return from the failed field trip, the attendees were all quiet…for a change. One of our 11 year-old boys didn’t have time to discuss it because he simply had to “go write a poem”. And when we asked a round-faced, supremely stoic young girl covered in Hijab who was her favorite Avenger, she smiled broadly with her eyes: “Captain America”. "Captain America?" Really? Not Black Widow who had the brass to say, "Maybe it’s not about guns," in a superhero movie!? Not the scintillating scene-stealer Iron Man? But, rather, the conventionally wooden throwback to the 40s whose most exotic feature was his spangly outfit? That guy? We had to get to the bottom of this. And get to the bottom of it we did when we embarked on our mission to determine what made Captain America cool. It was from that mission that the basis of The Big-Brained Superheroes Club was formed.
We can argue all day about what constitutes scientific vs. artistic thinking. In truth, we see a lot of overlap ourselves. But words require meaning, and in the language of superpowers, we rely pretty heavily on Critical Thinking to be our pathway into scientific thinking. Data, math, logic…all of these tools are absolutely necessary for us to analyze, to communicate, to determine. However, for us, these tools are by no means sufficient. Without our pathways into what we currently consider artistic thinking—our Creativity and Sense of Adventure superpowers—we come up short. All of our carefully discerned patterns would never develop into themes. So, just like Albert Einstein, we big-brained superheroes need our (A)rt. STEAM is the word.
The Kids in the Hall Do Math
"Can I have a math problem?" is, as we mentioned on Twitter recently, probably our favorite big-brained superhero FAQ. How this tradition got started we don’t recall, but we’ve pretty much given up on making it through the halls of Yesler Community Center without being stopped by this question at least once (mostly at least thrice). And having zero interest in looking a gift horse in the math, roll with it we do. Even if it means scheduling an extra 20 minutes for a trip to the bathroom.
Why do we love this question so much? Well, we know that number talk is important in our early years, and apparently, ready access to basic math knowledge correlates with success on the PSAT. But our love of this question goes much deeper than that. This question, for us, is all about our superpowers:
- Sense of Adventure: Anytime big-brained superheroes are eager to solve a problem, they’re exercising their Sense of Adventure. And it all begins with a Sense of Adventure.
- Kindness, Empathy, Teamwork: Somehow some way we’ve learned to use math as a means of communication. A point of connection. Contra approaches like this one, our hallway math is a group effort. We suspect this cooperative approach may be good for all our big-brained superheroes but most especially for our girls (who, BTW, are our most frequent inquisitors by far).
- Critical Thinking, Creativity, Adaptability, and Persistence: Hallway math, sans pencil or paper, creates an interesting challenge for us. How difficult can we make it for our big brains and still keep it achievable? How far can we test their boundaries and even their sense of themselves? How can we, ever so briefly and subtly, blow their minds? While it may sound ridiculous, these really are the questions we ask ourselves. All in this quintessentially transitory space.
We love these indisputable reminders that thinking, learning, and connecting can and should be happening everywhere, maybe even especially on the way to the bathroom.
Our Shared Superpowers
One of the primary missions of The Big-Brained Superheroes Club this summer is to help our Big-Brained Superheroes clearly see themselves as positive actors in the world—to help them realize and build on the best parts of themselves. Along those lines, we’re going to focus on solidifying a language for and an awareness of our superpowers, such as leadership, teamwork, and critical thinking, while we draw, write, invent, and perform.
Our Official Dictionary of Superpowers:
- Teamwork: joining together to accomplish our mission
- Leadership: inspiring, encouraging, and being an example to those around us
- Kindness: being thoughtful and considerate
- Empathy: feeling/thinking what someone else is feeling/thinking
- Sense of Adventure: desire to try new things and make mistakes
- Critical Thinking: questioning our assumptions
- Adaptability: ability to adjust to new situations
- Persistence: sticking to a goal
- Empowerment: feeling confident in ourselves
- Respect: having regard for others
- Willpower: being able to intentionally control ourselves with our brains
- Creativity: giving our brains the freedom to connect things in a new way
UPDATE: Curious about where our particular concept of superpowers came from? Check out our Origins Story Part 1 of X.