Category Archives: Humor

Expectation and Perfection

“It’s getting better all the time…”
– The Beatles

As the new school year begins my classes are filled again with students, all of them wanting to learn, to improve their understanding of the world, and to develop their skills in a wide variety of areas, from writing essays to shooting free throws to writing computer programs to understanding human history.

Some of them, as part of their desire to improve, also wish to be “the best”in one or more of these areas.

Just to be clear, that’s not something that you get to be, and it’s not healthy to have such a notion even on your radar.

Of course it is *technically* possible to be “the best” at some arbitrarily-defined objective, in some subset of the population. I might be the best physics person in my household, for example, or my friend might be the best miniature golf player.

Running

There is a student I have worked with who is the fastest cross-country runner our school has ever had, and he has certainly developed some of his skills in healthy competition with other students. He continues to develop as a runner in college now, but he doesn’t have any expectation that he’s going to someday be the fastest cross-country runner *in the world*. The pursuit of such a goal would be, for him, distracting from the other opportunities he has in his life, and ultimately fruitless.

Climbing

In an interesting subculture of rock-climbing called “bouldering,” short climbs of subjective difficulty on a natural crag of rock or in a climbing gym are attempted by climbers wishing to improve their skills. A rating system grades these climbs–these “problems”–by difficulty from VB (a very easy climb, equivalent to scaling a ladder almost) to V0, V1, V2, and so on, up to (currently) V15, a problem so challenging that only a very few are able to pull them off after repeated attempts.

One of the wonderful things about bouldering is that there is naturally a focus on improving one’s skill level–“I just succeeded on a V3, I wonder if I can do a V4?”–in a supportive environment, with other climbers offering words of encouragement and, in some cases, spotting the climber to offer safety in the event of a fall. If there’s any competition, it’s a friendly one, perhaps to be the first to accomplish a given problem. There’s not much room for the idea of being “the best” when there’s a problem one crag over that’s twice as hard as what you’ve just completed.

Musicians

The same goes for musicians learning a piece of music. Most of the musicians I know, especially the very good ones, are very humble. They work hard to improve their improvisation, or their performance of a piece of classical music… but “mastery” of performance isn’t possible. No one says “I’ve mastered Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata’.”

Physics

In my teaching I have the pleasure of teaching physics to very bright students, it’s my role to offer them a sequence of problems which present them with increasingly difficult challenges of their understanding of physics principles. Students who recognize that they have started along a path towards a greater comprehension are able to approach their learning with a more relaxed attitude, and seem to be more receptive to the inevitable setbacks that are a normal part of that process.

One of my students, after getting what she felt was a disappointing score on a physics test, went home to tell her father about it, hoping to get a little sympathy from him. His support, however, wasn’t what she expected. Upon hearing the news he just smiled, put an arm around her, and said, “Now you know you’re studying *real* physics!” He was an engineer, and all too familiar with the struggle that comes with making progress in any challenging endeavor.

Some students don’t yet understand

The whole idea of “life-long learning”—which every teacher I know has whole-heartedly acknowledged and embraced—is not something that some students have internalized yet. But it’s true, and it’s something that high-school students seem to sometimes struggle with, and the brighter the student, the greater the struggle. Accustomed to lapping up the easier challenges of the Lower and Middle School year, an Upper School student may be faced with something that is truly beyond their quick-and-easy mastery for the very first time. It’s a great opportunity for students to come face-to-face with the academic (and personal?) challenges that they will encounter throughout the rest of their lives.

Helping to manage their expectations at these moments is an important part of our teaching job.

“The Pressure”

I was experiencing some academic challenges of my own at one point in my education, and I’d decided to take a little time off from college. My parents, understanding and taking this as a teaching moment, gathered me and my three younger brothers around to make sure that we understood the situation. “We want you all to know,” my father said, “that we don’t necessarily expect that you’re all going to become doctors, or lawyers, or anything else. We just want you to do the best that you can do.”

The three oldest brothers all visible relaxed at this good news. The youngest, Stephen, however, looked grim. “‘The best that I can do?’,” he said to my father. “Boy, you guys really know how to put on the pressure!”

Just do the best that you can do.

No pressure.

Sherlocked!

Well, I suppose it had to happen sooner or later…

I’ve been Sherlocked.

If you’re not familiar with the term “sherlocked,” it comes to us courtesy of Apple, which back in the day offered a file search capability on its OS called “Sherlock.” The original feature set of that capability was expanded upon by a third-party developer who crated a software tool “Watson” that served as a companion to Sherlock, with the ability to search the Internet, perform calculations, look up references, etc. It was such a useful tool that Apple, in a subsequent release of the OS, incorporated almost all of those same features into their software. The developer was no longer able to make any money off the software he had developed–he had been “Sherlocked.”

This wan’t the first time that such a thing had happened. The first case of this happening that I’m aware of is back in the early Macintosh days (System 7), when Steve Christensen’s SuperClock! utility was written to allow the computer to display the time in the upper corner of the screen. This eminently useful feature was incorporated into System 7.5, along with a number of other features adapted / adopted/ stolen from other software developers. A lot of people view this as simply the cost of doing business with a large, powerful organization, but it seems like a bitter pill for a hard-working developer to have to swallow.

You can learn more about the process of being Sherlocked by Apple at:

What does this have to do with me?

A couple of days ago, I received an email from the College Board announcing some new features that were being added to the College Board website.

That “Question Bank” that supports students with 15,000 on-demand questions? That’s my idea! That’s exactly what the learnapphysics.com website has been doing for the last ten years.

Okay, to be fair, people have been publishing banks of test questions for years, and the SAT “Question of the Day” was a thing that I took as inspiration for my website, so… I can’t complain too loudly here. In fact, I’m not complaining at all. I’m glad that the College Board has caught on to the idea that there are lots of ways that they can support students taking their courses.

But if anybody asks, I’m going to come right out and say it: “Yeah. I got Sherlocked by the College Board.”