Gifted Students and Trying Math Again

Okay, so gifted students and intuition, and why taking an introductory math class made me think of these things. (You, uh, might want to grab something to drink; this is likely to be long.)

When I first started at the bank, my job was to figure out why there was a difference between what an ATM said happened and what a customer said happened, and fix it. There were very clear procedures for this (I wrote them). There were a number of resources which would give you some piece of the whole picture, and you would go through them, in order, to find the difference and how it needed to be corrected. Many people did just that. However, there were some people that Becca and I would just say had “It.” We didn’t quite know what It was, but after a very short amount of time there, I kind of ignored my own procedures, because I could simply look at a difference and know where to find the answer. In truth, it was more that I was confirming what I already knew the answer to be. Now, it’s likely that this was a sort of pattern recognition that was going on at a subconscious level that was letting me know when THIS looked the same as THAT, and thus was very likely to be the same thing. When I knew, I knew. I got a nice little dopamine hit, and it felt … resonant. Like I had hit my mental tuning fork and this problem echoed the tone exactly.

As a student, school was like that for me, all the time. I found diagramming sentences endlessly enjoyable because it was like a calm, serene song in my head. Finding the right word in an essay “sounds” the same way. (Though it would take me well into adulthood to learn that sometimes effort is better spent finding something almost in tune than chasing that one perfect resonance.)

This held true in a lot of parts of math. When I’m factoring polynomials, much of the time I can just look at the polynomial and “hear” what the answer is. If pressed, I might be able to reverse engineer a process that led me to the correct answer, but the my process is actually “it sounded right in my head.” (I reverse engineered essay drafts when they were required, too.)

This is all well and good – when it works. But another hard lesson from being an adult is that it doesn’t always work (and its corollary: not every time you think it worked, it did).

The problem with me and math is that this ability to just intuit the right answer is spotty and unpredictable. Sometimes I can just know what the right answer is. But sometimes, I freeze. I look at the problem and I expect the answer to sound in my head, and it just doesn’t. And because I grew up with this ability and came to rely on it, I get caught in a kind of infinite loop. I’ll look at the question, not get an answer off the top of my head, and continue to just look at it. It will eventually occur to me that I should use pencil and paper and actually figure it out, but I’m always faintly aggravated that I have to resort to that. It feels like cheating, somehow, to have to do everything step-by-step.

And this only works with fairly elementary math, because that’s not really my strength or focus. As time goes on, I have to do more and more work the “right” (read: long) way. Because this ability to not have to do things the “right” way is so valued, I was taught that any area where this intuition/pattern recognition/resonance didn’t occur wasn’t one of my strengths. Obviously, time is limited, so why not focus on the areas that come effortlessly?

And perhaps that’s a solid answer. I mean, project management comes damn near effortlessly to me, and I’m much happier doing that than another field that would be singularly against my skill set like, say, sales. But it also leaves me without the same sort of studying skills that most people developed once school got “hard,” because school … never got hard. I learned them, certainly. I know every concept of how to effectively study. It’s just not on the top of my tool chest, or even in sight most of the time. If the aphorism “if all you have is a hammer…” is true, then my “hammer” is this intuition, this resonance. Methodical studying is more like … a very complicated, specialized tool that I rarely need and can never remember where I put it.

As with many things I post here, I can’t really bring this to a conclusion that satisfies me. Encourage gifted students to focus on things they find difficult and non-intuitive? Find a better word than gifted? Go ye forth and learn hard things? I’m enjoying math, at any rate. It’s working different parts of my brain and I keep wondering … if I do more math, will I build that resonance?