THE BIG-BRAINED SUPERHEROES CLUB
Big-Brained Superheroes vs. a World Too Small

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Several months ago, one of our young big-brained superheroes asked a few of us BBS volunteers to attend her school play. This is the kind of thing we are always up for. Soccer games, school fairs, performances…if they ask, we do everything we can to get there. Not only because we big-brained superheroes stick together but because these events give us unique opportunities to learn much more about our young BBSes, and hopefully, create a better club as a result.

So, attend her performance we did, and learn we did. For instance, we learned from her teacher that our young BBS was struggling with her multiplication. This surprised us somewhat because, while we knew math was not her very favorite subject, she had always been able to accomplish what we asked of her. So, of course, the first thing we did was quiz her verbally in the school hallway while we waited for her mom to pick her up after the play.

"9X3?" "27." "8X5?" "40." "6X6?" "36."…

This young big-brained superhero answered every multiplication question we threw at her, casually and without hesitation. Just hanging out in the hallway, she went well above the level her teacher told us she was stuck at in class. Immediately, we had a sense of the problem, but just to be sure, we quizzed her again at our next BBSC meeting. Same result. And such is another deeply unsatisfying aspect of focusing so directly on outcomes—tests, in particular. We, quite frequently, aren’t very good at knowing what they measure.

In this case, the situation wasn’t as it might have seemed—that our young hero was incapable of doing multiplication. The situation was simply that she wasn’t completing 100 multiplication problems in class, on this particular test as written, within the 5 minutes allotted. And, to add yet more complexity to the situation, it was probably one of the more favorable aspects of her personality that kept her from succeeding in this area. She is a very calm, congenial young Big-Brained Superhero. And as such, she is less likely to feel the pressure one might need to feel in order to complete 100 problems in 5 minutes. If we had to guess, she simply proceeded to take this test in her own way—in her own time.

Ultimately, of course, we did have to guess. Because the test she took did very little to measure her fundamental knowledge of multiplication. There were simply too many variables involved. So what else is new? But, from a distance, that’s frequently not how it seems. When looking at report cards and aggregate test scores, we often unconsciously view these as concrete, even objective, measures. Teachers may know better (or, at least, they should), but even with that knowledge, any amelioration efforts may seem ultimately futile.

Tests are everywhere. And yet, as far as we can tell, the process of much academic testing involves taking a whole wide world of variables, confounding them with even more variables, and then thinking we learned something from the outcome. And maybe we did learn something. But sadly, we probably don’t know what that is.

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Of the Things We Have Yet to Figure Out

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So much has been going on here at BBSC HQ that we might as well just begin in the middle. Engineer Zero kindly stopped by on Monday to teach us about his Scratch-programmable Grisbot. We’ve been checking out our Anomaly graphic novel. And did we mention electronics? Lots and lots of electronics. Oh yeah…and of course there’s March Mathness:

Maybe it’s a reaction to all the hustle and bustle, but rather than spending the bulk of our time this week documenting who did what and when, we’ve mostly been meditating on a larger, more abstract question: Just how does all this happen?

A March Mathness example:
On Monday, we encountered a free range (aka unofficial) big-brained superhero roaming the halls of Yesler Community Center and stopped to ask him to solve a few math problems for us. In the course of our brief discussion, we offhandedly mentioned that we were part of The Big-Brained Superheroes Club, which met on Mondays and Wednesdays from 4 to 6pm. After a few more math questions and responses and thanking him for his time, he responded, “OK. I’ll see you on Wednesday!”

Huh. We were not expecting this. If we were planning to seek out new recruits to the club, “ask random kids to solve a bunch of complex math problems” probably wouldn’t have been our go-to course of action. And yet, recruit a new member we did as that particular young BBS proved when he exclaimed, “I told you I’d be here!”, when we met him for the second time on Wednesday afternoon. And he was actually just one of three new recruits (two boys, one girl) resulting from this week’s Hallway Math event so far.

So…ummm…What the heck?

Obviously, we’re still meditating…

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Kickin’ it old school…Yesterday, our young BBSes worked with relays salvaged out of an old organ. The little click we heard whenever they successfully connected the circuit was music to our ears!

Kickin’ it old school…Yesterday, our young BBSes worked with relays salvaged out of an old organ. The little click we heard whenever they successfully connected the circuit was music to our ears!

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The hands seen here adding up 0s and 1s* belong to one of our big-brained superhero 4th-graders. We love to see how this particular BBS recovers from her mistakes. Rather than getting flustered and frustrated, she remains calm, cool, and Persistent to the end. All the way up to a hundred.

* = This binary counter was designed and developed by one of our big-brained superhero volunteers who received high praise yesterday when one of our young BBSes, after a scrupulous examination of the apparatus, earnestly pronounced said volunteer to be “really good at electronics”.

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The Kids in the Hall Do Math

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"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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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). 
  3. 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.

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"She Killed Them With Mathematics"

Just a little of what we have to learn about math:

studies show that “number talk” at home is a key predictor of young children’s achievement in math once they get to school. Now a new study provides evidence that gender is part of the equation: Parents speak to their daughters about numbers far less than their sons.

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