By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, January 12, 2016
One of my great regrets in life is not trying harder in school when I was young, especially at studying math and science. I did get through Calculus I in college with a B, but I laid out a year and when I returned to take Calculus II, I was lost. I always studied just enough to pass the tests, but never enough to gain a deep understanding. It was complete laziness on my part.
Now that I’m retired, and I sense my mind in decline, I’ve wondered if I could learn in my final third of life what I didn’t in my first third. It’s that age-old question: Can you teach an old dog new tricks? Would it be possible for me to relearn math and then finish Calculus II? I’ve been meaning to get started on this project for two years, but like my younger self, I put it off to play instead. I don’t know why, but about a week ago I did get started, studying math with a workbook and the Khan Academy.
My first impulse was to begin again with Algebra, but I thought I better refresh myself with Arithmetic, and tried some 4th grade math. It’s a good thing I did, because I’ve discovered I’ve forgotten how to do advanced subtraction and division problems. Decades of using a calculator has ruined my basic math skills and I discovered I was completely flummoxed by that whole carry the number thing.
What’s really amazing is how fantastic the Khan Academy is at teaching. At least the new version, with interactive assessments. Ever since personal computers came out in the late 1970s, I thought they should be fantastic teaching tools. And I assumed the best subject computers to tutor would be math. But every time I looked at math teaching programs I was disappointed. The Khan Academy programs have come up with a rather straight forward method that I’m actually finding addictive. They have drills that automatically assess my answers. Each session covers six problems. I work out the problem on paper, and put in the answer on the computer. If it’s right, I get the next problem, if it’s wrong, I’m forced to keep trying. I can ask for hints, or I can watch instructional videos.
My ego pushes me to get all six problems right in a row. I hate seeing the big X that reminds me I failed. Early on I learned that I’m careless about reading the screen properly, or transferring the problem to the paper, or the answer to the screen. But I quickly began to double check my work. Then I learned that I make casual math mistakes. I used to know my times tables cold, but evidently I’ve got some bugs in my brain. So I do everything twice or thrice. Finally, and this was most enlightening, is I’ve completely forgotten how to do some basic math skills. Which makes me glad I started with arithmetic.
This challenge is demoralizing in a way. I used to believe that with effort I could relearn all my old math and finish Calculus II, but now, I’m not so sure. It’s certainly going to take a lot of time, and hard work. What I’m actually feeling are the limitations of my mind. I’m hoping those limitations are like exercising the body, and that with daily workouts will build my math stamina. I already physically exercise three times a day, and I know my body will never do what it did in my twenties or even forties again. I might be fooling myself that I can mentally turn back the clock, but for some reason I do have hope. I believe my brain is plastic enough to still learn. I’ll learn just how adaptable my 64 year old brain is this year when I get into algebra.
I am reminded of that wonderful novel, Flowers for Algernon, about a guy name Charlie, with an IQ of 68. Charlie volunteered for a medical experiment to boost his intelligence. The procedure worked, and eventually Charlie became a genius, but then the treatment wore off, and tragically Charlie returned to his low IQ existence. Getting old feels like being Charlie after the treatment starts wearing off.