It was the concept of “x”. In class it was explained that “x” was unknown – and I certainly agreed with that. In fact “solving for x” was the unknownest of unknowns as far as I was concerned. The whole thing made no sense; I just couldn’t get my head around the “x” thing. I soon dreaded going to class. When the Biddy would hand out graded test or homework papers she would stop at my desk and scrunch up her already scrunched up lips while she plopped my F-graded paper in front of me. Being called up to the front of the class to work a problem on the board became a terror. I would flounder and scratch something on the blackboard and that is when the Biddy would start firing questions at me and of course the horror and humiliation of the situation was compounded. The rest of the class, including Karen – the one girl I wanted to impress – would snicker.

I guess it was three or four weeks into the school year when the old Biddy told me to come by after school. Icy fear clutched my heart. If Ms. Vaughn, my young and very beautiful Geography teacher had called me in, my heart would have soared. But the old Biddy? I knew what was coming. ‘I wasn’t applying myself.’ ‘ I needed to work harder.’ ‘Concentrate!’

I wasn’t a bad student. I wasn’t particularly interested in achieving the Honor Role, and I fulfilled my goal. I usually made B’s, maybe a C or two, except for Biology where I could sneak through with a D+ or C-. I got consistent A’s in Band though. But that damn Algebra class was ruining my sleep and puncturing severe holes in my self esteem.

I nervously approached Ms. Biddy (I really don’t remember her name. I should. I wish I did.) She told me to take a seat in front of her desk. She just started talking, saying things like, “Jerry, you are making this harder than it is.” She then gently asked me what it was that I didn’t understand. Tears started welling up and I blurted out “Nothing makes sense. I’m too stupid.”

I expected her to slam her hand down on the desk and start spitting out a lecture. Instead she started talking about Einstein and how he failed Algebra. Of course I immediately surmised that if he couldn’t pass it how could I? She smiled, as best that a Biddy could smile, and said, “Dr. Einstein lacked the one thing that you do have, and that is someone to explain it to him.”

She had me go to the dreaded blackboard and told me to write down ten plus ten and then write down the equals sign, but don’t say the answer. I did this stupid little thing. Then she told me to write down a “X” after the equal sign.

**10 + 10 = X**

She then said “X” is the answer. “But the answer is 20!” I exclaimed.

“Very good Jerry, you just solved an equation. And you did it all in your head.”

“Huh?”

“X is the answer. Always remember that. Now turn it around and write “X” equals ten plus ten.”

**X = 10 + 10**

“What is “X”?”

I wasn’t exactly sure what she was getting at but I couldn’t think of anything else, so with a trembling voice I said “20”?

“Perfect”, she explained. “Now below that write what you just told me.”

**X = 10 + 10**

**20 = 10 + 10**

“Is that true?”

This must be a trick question. I stared at the equation and kept repeating to myself, ‘Well ten and ten is twenty and there is nothing else it could be so where’s the trick?’

“Twenty?”

She stood up and stared at me and proclaimed, “Jerry, you have just solved for “X”. Remember that “X” is a question. “X” stand for ‘The answer is!’”

Then we went through the same thing again, except she gave me equations like 250 plus 16 plus 100 plus 10 equals X. I had to write the equation out but then I had to go to a separate part of the board and line up those numbers in a column to figure out the answer. I solved for X.

It was sorta’ making a little sense.

The next day in class we all had a test, but mine was different. All of my questions were addition equations and two subtraction equations. It took me a little longer than everyone else, but I got them all correct and she awarded me a “D”. She gave me special homework full of addition and subtraction equations. If I got them all right, I got a D. If I got one of them wrong, I got a D-.

The next week I had to meet with the Biddy again. This time she started hammering me with multiplication and division equations – and it was followed up with special tests and homework for which I was awarded D’s and D-‘s and one F because I got more than one wrong.

But then somewhere in there something clicked. Solving for “X” started making sense. “X” wasn’t a feared, mysterious, and dreaded nemesis anymore. It was kind of cool actually. Within three weeks I started working on the same stuff as everyone else. For those six weeks I received a D. Then I moved up to getting C’s. And my last six weeks of the school year I received the coveted B. Take that, Einstein!

How did it work? Someone sat down and talked to me and patiently explained it to me.

Which brings me to Salman Khan.

Mr. Khan graduated from MIT with a BS in mathematics, a BS in electrical engineering and computer science, and a MS in electrical engineering and computer science, and then pursued a MBA from Harvard Business School. He is pretty smart.

His young cousin Nadia was having trouble in Algebra. He of course helped her by providing little tutorials. When other relatives asked for help with school he figured it would be convenient to offer this tutoring via YouTube so it would be easily accessible. So he would provide little fifteen minute lessons where he would scribble stuff on a notepad and explain it as he went along. All of the scribbling and talking appeared in the YouTube videos.

Salman Khan preparing a lesson |

Suddenly he found that his little lectures were beginning to get tons of hits, and he started receiving emails from students all over the world thanking him for explaining stuff in a way that made sense. If you watch his videos it is as if he is sitting next to you scribbling on a paper explaining things as he goes along. Conversational. He will tell the student things like, “You have to be careful to move the decimal point over two places like this. Remember this, it is easy to forget, and I do it all the time.” Soon he had millions of students clicking in.

Then Bill Gates, in a speech, said something like, “Thanks to Mr. Khan my daughter finally was able to successfully get through high school.” His viewers jumped to millions from all over the world.

Then Bill Gates called him and asked if he could find time in his schedule to come out to visit him. Salman Khan reflected, ‘Actually the only thing on my schedule was to brush my teeth twice a day.’ Mr. Gates offered him fifteen million dollars to expand his effort and to establish a model for school systems to use his videos. They are trying it in California and it is reported to be a glowing success.

Bill Gates and Salman Khan |

Mr. Khan has established the Khan Academy with the mission, “To provide a world-class education to anyone, anywhere. With this in mind, we want to share our content with whoever may find it useful.”

Screen Shot of YouTube Lesson |

Khan Academy videos has exceeded 175 million views. Google jumped in and donated $2 million in support. To date there are more than 3,400 YouTube videos covering simple subjects like Math and Algebra and History to Calculus, Valuation and Investing, Organic Chemistry, Linear Algebra, Trigonometry, Programming, and on and on. If you want to learn about something, tune in….FOR FREE!

I mentioned this whole thing to a coworker, and she said, “Oh yeah. Khan is responsible for my son passing Biology!”

Here is a ten minute course on the Beauty of Algebra. Take a look.

The Beauty of Algebra

Here is a link to Khan Academy.

Khan Academy

Mr. Khan is Ms. Biddy in disguise.

I was a math major for a time in college and got up to Advanced Calculus before I gave up. Geometry and Physics also gave me problems. Wish I'd had Salman Kahn around back then.

ReplyDeleteOh jeez, where was your Ms Biddy and Mr. Kahn when I needed help in math and Spanish?!

ReplyDeleteMy middle school math teacher had a last name that sounded like Tarantula and she screamed a lot. For example, if you had a question that you wanted to ask while she was still working on a problem, you weren't allowed to put your hand up and ask the question while she was still demonstrating because it would confuse her. You had to wait until she was finished, even if that meant you would forget the question or get even further confused by listening way beyond your capacity to understand. If you moved to put your hand in the air she would shriek, "WILL YOU LET ME FINISH???!!!!" and scare you into never asking a question ever again. Mr. Khan seems like he might be more patient than that.

ReplyDeleteThis is just great. I loved the post. (I'd seen Mr Khan on a TED video - or a TED-type video). But between your story of Khan and Ms Biddy, I get it.

ReplyDeleteHey Jerry! I had major problems with Algebra also. Being as A.D.D. as I was (and still am), I struggled from day one in that class. I didn't take it until 9th grade. I went to a school district, that seemed to pass and graduate everybody. Passing Algebra (when I shouldn't have) somehow convinced me that I should try Geometry the following year. After struggling for a badly the first quarter, the teacher, "Miss Stern," advised me to either get out of her class, or get my parents to hire a tutor. Well, there was no way the tutor thing was ever going to happen, so I got dropped the class and switched to a study hall period. Study Hall! Now that was a class I loved. It enabled me to never take a school book home for the rest of high school. All five of our kids were really good in math, one was even a physics major in college. When they were younger EVERY one of them at some point asked me for help with algebra. Can you please go ask your mother?

ReplyDeleteIsn't it funny how we get an idea of someone in our heads and then can be startled to find out they aren't monsters after all? I had a Biddy/Khan moment myself when a patient was saying she wasn't going to be able to pass her remedial math class and get her Associate's degree because she just couldn't understand how to multiply and divide fractions. So I set aside therapy for a few minutes and showed her an easy way to remember how to work with fractions. She got it, and passed her course. But my own kids have moved far beyond the math I know since I stopped short of calculus.

ReplyDeleteI had Sister Eleanor - you were either a student (good) or a pupil (not so good) in her class - I was a pupil. She did try to help, except that she did the same thing after class that she did in class, so it was no help. She passed me to get me out of her class, I think. I've seen Mr. Kahn on TED - wish he had been around when I was young - excellent stuff.

ReplyDeleteFunny...I've never been good at math, but I liked algebra. I didn't get high grades or anything and I must have passed because I went on to geometry and trigonometry (which I nearly failed). It didn't help having the same teacher as my dad when he nearly failed those classes twenty-five years prior, followed up by my brilliant older brother (same teacher). Poor Mr. Miles just didn't know what to do with me.

ReplyDeleteWhat a joy it must have been for Ms. Biddy to see that light go off in your punkin head. I love good teachers.

ReplyDeleteI do remember not really getting subtraction in first grade, but then we went and started learning something else. I thought, GOOD. I won't have to do THAT again.

To this day I can hardly manage to keep score in darts.

It's a good thing you had a Ms Biddy. I had a Mr. Mean who repeatedly sent me to write my geometry attempted solution on the BB so he could show all what was wrong but he never set me straight. I was not able to see the correction because my eyes were too blurry from hidden tears.He gave me 51% at the end but he damaged my self esteem. But I was fine in algebra and chemistry just never that geometry. maybe I should learn it now? Try the khan method?

ReplyDeleteOi! Where have you got too? Nearly a month and waiting for a new post (tut) :-)

ReplyDeleteCx

We definitely need to clone him. Many teachers are taught how to teach math but not how to understand it themselves. They teach a rote course and often end up teaching fear of math. and we need to pay our math and science teachers enough that good ones - with both teaching and subject skills will want to teach.

ReplyDeleteWOW! This is so interesting! I will have to send these to my daughter, my grand son is doing Algebra now in school.

ReplyDeleteWhen I was taking Algebra, I barely passed. When I took Geometry, the first semester my tactful teacher explained to me I was getting an A in citizenship, but would be getting an F in the class as I did not understand it. He suggested I drop the class. How sad, because he detoured me into thinking I should avoid all math equations.

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