Episode 015 Transcript

Resolving Contradictions with Brent Farrand (10/2/18)

JASON GRANT: Yo! this is Jason Grant, hippy-dippy weatherman. Tonight's forecast is dark, followed by scattering light in the morning. If you want to think and expand education, then you need to check out this Point of Learning podcast featuring my dearest friends, Brent Farrand and Peter Horn.

VOICEOVER (Peter Horn): On today’s show, Brent Farrand, a master teacher of mathematics, on what we so often miss in math class …

BRENT A. FARRAND: It's like teaching a person to be a carpenter by focusing on the screwdriver, the hammer and the saw—and forgetting that your goal is to build a house!

VO: … and what kids gain from competitive debate …

BRENT: The structure of having two opposing sides who respect each other—you have to teach that in the context of the debate, and that I'm not debating you; I’m debating the idea you're advocating.

VO: I first met Brent Farrand about a dozen years ago, when I started hanging out at his and his wife Vernell’s place in Liberty, New York, a gorgeous spot in the Catskills, because Brent loves to put on shows—annual mini rock concerts with lights, fog machines, and eventually fireworks—that his friends dubbed “Brentfest.” (If you know Liberty, NY, you know that it’s just a stone’s throw from the site of Woodstock, and not a few people who have come to Brentfest over the years are willing to share personal stories about that iconic 1969 festival.) My then-fiancée Robyn and I had such a good time at Brentfest that we asked if we could hold our wedding reception at the 2010 festival. On the face of it, today’s episode isn’t really about any of that, but I wanted to set the stage for my conversation with this man of many parts whose skill as an educator I first came to focus on when I read letters by two of his former students supporting Brent’s candidacy as a Princeton University Distinguished Secondary School Teacher, a prestigious prize that Brent won in 1994. I want to highlight that after knowing Brent for five years and talking school a bit during that time, I only learned he won this award through my dissertation research on student perceptions of outstanding teaching. I would never have found out about it from Brent, who, in addition to being insatiably curious about everything from law to mathematics to painting to beekeeping, is also one of the most modest brilliant people I know. For this conversation in late July about the value of mathematics and debate, two of Brent’s great passions, I traveled back to Liberty, NY, where Brent grew up and has since retired. Two of my bandmates from the Brentfest cover ensemble known as Voluptuous Panic, Jason Grant and Duane Harper Grant, also happened to be hanging out with their guitars, so some of their tasty underscore will season the interview.  

[Act 1: Mathematics begins 03:50]

PETER: I have read a description of your class by one of your former students who said that you challenged them to be innovators and inventors in the math classroom. What was a way that you went about that with your own students?

BRENT: People who know me probably would find this shocking thing to say, but I was very structured in the way I taught in the beginning. I was a very good traditional teacher. And then I began to see things that weren't working the way I wanted him to. And I always was experimenting. So, I went through a period where I thought that it would be a great thing to teach high school math using the Socratic method they use in law school.

PETER: So you're just asking questions and—

BRENT: Yeah, so I would work the kid back to something that they were certain they knew and then build them up to answer their own question. So “If you know that, then—”

PETER: “Then what else must be true?”

BRENT: Right, but it's also a brutal method. And I remember I made a young girl in my geometry class cry under the pressure of Socratic questioning. And I went home—I was devastated. I went home and I thought, “If my teaching method is upsetting such a sweet kid like that this much, there's something wrong.” So I went back the next day and I asked, “I want you to write down every theorem that you don't understand, and a brief explanation of why, so I can learn what we need to do together.” Well, I got back from her every single theorem that we'd covered since the beginning of the year and under the reason why: “I can't picture it.” It was a revelation to me! That's where I measure the change, because I was at the same time doing reading about how the human mind thinks in pictures, not in words and symbols. We think in pictures, and that's why in geometry, I started making this shift to a less Euclid, more what geometry really is: the study of shapes and figures and their interrelationship, the measurement of the earth.

PETER: Literally “measuring the earth” = geometry.

BRENT: Right, so that’s where I mark the change. I'll give you an example of an inventor in the classroom. His name was Kumar Lee. We did this thing called the River Project. We got this bright idea, it was a great idea, this interdisciplinary study of river civilizations and all the subjects through the culture and the history and the intellectual life of that river system.

PETER: Okay. Because you can tie in geography, and earth science, and—

BRENT: And this kid, I never saw the brilliance in him until we did the River Project, and they were talking about pyramids and why did the Egyptians build pyramids like that. And the standard answer is because of just building up: they didn't have a way to build straight up, so they built like this [forms a triangle with his hands]. And Kumar goes, “No. Do you ever think that it might've been to reflect the sun off of the buildings so the inside was cool? The slanted roof doesn't absorb the sun. It reflects the rays off.” And the museum curator sat there and said, “Wow, that could be true!”

PETER: But did they hang out inside the pyramids? Weren’t they just big—

BRENT: Remember they felt that the dead—this was their afterlife home.

PETER: Oh I see! So the dead would be more comfortable. Okay. I had an image from your story of like a pyramid as an office building—

BRENT: Maybe we should go back to that!

PETER: I was like, “I don't, I don't remember that part!”

BRENT: So at that point, this point, I had also started teaching equation solving by the first day of class. I said, “Okay, we’re gonna play I’m thinking of a number game here. Multiply that number by three and you get 55.” Then I’d ask them to say what did they do and we’d work all the way up, on the first day of class, to pretty complex questions by me thinking of a number and doing this to it, and that's algebra. I said, “You just learned all of Algebra I, but now we're going to learn how to write it on paper. That's all we’re gonna do.”  

VO: As Brent continued to experiment with how to do math class in ways that reached the most students, he, like any teacher, had to figure out how to engage different kinds of learners. For instance, there's a type that might be called “number crunchers.”

BRENT: Number crunchers can be very frustrating to teach because you ask them to explain how they got the answer. They go, “I don't know, it just came to my head,” or “I just figured it out.”

JASON: They just crunched the numbers.

BRENT: Then they finally say, “I tried lots of different numbers.” So I’m like, “Okay, so what made you decide to try the numbers that you did?” “I don't know.” I said, “Well, did you try 100?” “That would be absolutely ridiculous,” they’d say, and then I would get them to explain why that was a ridiculous suggestion and why, and in the end what I got is the number crunchers to communicate with the deductive reasoners, and it was beautiful!

PETER: You have some teachers who seem like they became math teachers because they were used to getting the right answers as math students and so they were good at it and it was pretty easy for them.

JASON: And we called them—

BRENT: They're awesome technicians.

JASON: —technicians.

BRENT: We need technicians, but they don't necessarily make the best math teachers. They actually are for some kids, which is amazing. I had to learn that too. There are some kids that just need rules, and if you try to teach them concepts and relationships and stuff, they get really upset. I've had kids yell at me in class, “Just tell me the rule and I'll follow it!”

VO: Brent used to host us short weekly segment during his high school classes called “Math Mysteries,” where he invited kids to talk about math procedures that they regularly carried out but never understood why. I felt I had to tell him why this resonated so much with me.

PETER: I can remember doing, you know, long division in fourth grade, for example, and—

BRENT: Long division is crazy!

PETER: —and being taught, you know, what a divisor was, and what a dividend was, and what the remainder was, and how to line up these columns according to—

BRENT: Just to divide!

PETER: But I was always like, “Why aren't you explaining why we're doing this? I understand that this is a valid practice. It gets you to the right answer, but I don't understand what's really going on. Like can we just stop and think about what's going on? Why does this method work?” Because it felt less and less relevant, and—

BRENT: Exactly!

PETER: —that just increased as things got more complicated that we were doing, you know? And I could figure out how to do it pretty well, but I really wanted to understand. But then, you know, there were other things that I was more interested in. But I can remember that moment …

BRENT: Take your discipline of Language Arts and English. It would be like teaching the kids how to be stenographers but not how to write. That's what we do in mathematics. You end up with a 12th-grader taking calculus, who's got already 1500 recipes in their math box in their head, and they're juggling it around. But there's no connections between any of them, and no reason why! The whole system of mathematics is really resident in the human mind. It's an internal thing. Kids love to play with mathematics, if you let them. Counting! I mean their mind is just going crazy with mathematics inside, but we create this interface—

PETER: Just wanted to double-click on that for a second. Have you ever played with that? Like with one of your grandchildren? Do you have a quick example of a—

BRENT: I have a better example with Whitney, because Whitney has an awesome mathematical mind.

PETER: This is your daughter Whitney.

BRENT: Yes. I remember at a very young age—I don't remember when—I was having a conversation about shapes and the names of shapes and their characteristics. I mean she may have been three or four, maybe five, but no larger. So we went through a number of different ones, and I would just put the figure in front of it her and say, “Well, so what do you see here? And then attach the name to it, you know, “Well that's a circle, that's a triangle.” We came to a trapezoid, and she said, “Oh, that's an unfinished triangle.” Well now the depth of that concept is incredible, because there's so many formulas for the trapezoid that are based on it being an unfinished triangle—

PETER: ½ (big base + little base) x height, right?

BRENT: Right, exactly, exactly. And the whole locus area, the movements of points and lines and stuff of math, etc., sees the trapezoid as an unfinished triangle, right? It didn't get all the way up to the top. It stopped here [indicating plane in mid-air].

PETER: That word was one of the, I don't know, one of the hundreds of things that got me interested in wanting to learn Greek later on. When I heard it, I was like, “What’s a trapezoid? This is such a weird word. What does this mean?” And then I looked it up in the dictionary and found out that trapeza, is the Greek word for “table.” And of course, it does look like that. And I was like, “Well, that's wicked cool.”

BRENT: Yeah, it does look like that. It's like, you know, either way you flip it, it looks like a table.

PETER: Yeah. Depends on what decade you're in, I guess …

BRENT: So what I was getting to is that what we do in mathematics is we teach the interface, which is algorithms, calculative algorithms. We teach that interface as math—

PETER: And again, you’re thinking of algorithms as “recipes”—

BRENT: —and never connect it to pictures, which goes back to the story I told before about the young girl who said, “I just can't picture it.”

PETER: Which prompted you to rethink everything—

BRENT: Right, so the human mind is so naturally adapted to mathematics, but then we create this interface of algorithms that gets between the user and what really is math. Reducing that interface so that the mind and the subject can get right smack together—

PETER: It's a beautiful way to think about it.

BRENT: —is, I think, the key to more enriched mathematical teaching. Stop teaching the interface except as a tool, not as the thing! It's like teaching a person to be a carpenter by focusing on the screwdriver, the hammer, and the saw, and forgetting that your goal is to build a house—not even showing that that's what we're really focused on! We're focused on the hammer, the screwdriver, and the saw. And that we have to stop doing in education. The tools are absolutely important. I mean, you can't have a discussion about history without understanding the tools of geography, so they're critical. But if that's the limit of our vision, then we haven't really educated.


VO: Act 2. Subject to Debate. Though Brent’s teaching career was almost entirely spent in New Jersey, at Science High School in Newark, he grew up in and around this New York Catskills town called Liberty (a great spot for a wedding, parenthetically), which he called, and I quote, “the greatest.” Among his most important teachers was Ed Wolff, who took a philosophical approach to the teaching of mathematics that really resonated with Brent. Remarkably, Mr. Wolff was the only math teacher Brent had in high school. Turns out, Brent and his classmates requested this particular teacher each year, the school complied, and so for five years in a row, all throughout HS, Brent had a math teacher who challenged kids to think about more than the mechanics of mathematics. You may not be surprised that Brent and Ed Wolff became lifelong friends. He credits debate as what kept him in high school, especially his debate coach, Barry Talkington, who will be a significant player in this second half of the episode. “Debate was intellectually very exciting,” Brent recalls. After getting involved in radical politics at Clark University, Brent eventually decided to teach, but it wasn’t a straight shot. In 1974, he drove a milk truck; in 1975, a plumbing supply truck. Brent earned a Master’s in history and did a stint in law school. Along the way, he got certified to teach social studies, then math. Aight, so ... After applying for jobs to teach math with a few suburban NJ schools that were not a good fit, Brent feels grateful to this day that Newark was enthusiastic about his promise to establish a debate team. He began his Newark career teaching one year at a middle school, then started at Science High in the fall of 1979. 

BRENT: ’79.

PETER: And you started the debate team in the same year?

BRENT: Just as an internal debate team. You know, kids debate each other within the school. And then the second year we went out on the tournament circuit.

PETER: And how hot was the tournament circuit in 1980?

BRENT: It was big. It was incredibly intimidating for us, but I knew we could do it, and the kids knew they could do it, and we decided that we were going to emulate the best, Bronx Science. What they did, we would learn to do.

PETER: How did you emulate them?

BRENT: Research techniques, team cohesiveness, team spirit, longevity—not just building stars, but having a broad-based program. And I think we did that.

The legendary Bronx Science HS debate team was coached for over three decades by a formidable English teacher, Shakespeare lover, and Bronx Science alum named Rich Sodikow Brent and I discussed Sodikow’s approach.

PETER: How did you find find out those things about how he was running that program?

BRENT: By joining the circuit and by him actually taking our program under his wing.

PETER: Is that right?

BRENT: Yeah. Great man. My kids loved him, and one of the reasons is that we were on our second trip up to the Mid-Hudson Debate Tournament, coming up to Monticello [NY], and our bus broke down. And so by the time we got there, everybody had lost the first round. We had forfeited, and I think we left the with about one win out of six teams. And of course the bus was pretty depressed and Richard Sodikow got up on the bus and gave this little talk about, you know, welcoming them to the circuit and he was just very warm. And then he went down the aisle and spoke to each kid individually as they get off the bus. And this is a man who is running the biggest, most successful debate program in the entire United States. I mean, when you went into elimination rounds—say there were 12-16 teams that made elimination rounds—it was not unusual for 10 to 12 of them to be from Bronx Science. Most tournaments were closed out by Bronx Science. There were awesome! And he took the time to do that. And he mentored me a lot. That's terrific. And Barry Talkington mentored him.

PETER: How about that?

VO: So Brent’s old HS debate coach Barry Talkington had not only inspired Brent enough to keep Brent going to school, but he’d also mentored this legendary debate coach Rich Sodikow, who some years down the line mentors Brent in how to be a great debate coach. What’s beautiful to me about a trace of influence like this is that so often teachers are not really sure about what results from our work. We believe we make a difference, but it’s hard to quantify, very different from baking something from scratch, or making sculpture from scrap metal, say, where there are concrete, observable products of the effort and skill invested in the project. Which is why it’s so meaningful when former students circle back to say “Thank you,” or “Here’s what I’m up to now,” or in the case of Rich Sodikow talking to Barry Talkington about Brent Farrand, and I’m paraphrasing how this conversation might have gone down, “Because you showed me the ropes when I was a new debate coach, I’m paying it forward with Brent and his team at Science High Newark.” In semi-retirement, Brent spends some time these days spreading the gospel of debate to classrooms, where teachers use argumentative tools to solidify learning objectives, having kids debate about topics like who or what is the mockingbird in the title of Harper Lee’s famous novel. Based on my work in schools, I had a question about this approach …  

PETER: I want to put this question to you because, you know, the reservation when I'm working with schools about how to do civil discourse, one of the things that I can get leery about is structuring every argumentative discussion where kids have the opportunity to express their ideas as a debate, because it frames it as This is going to be a contest. There's going to be winners and losers. You have a fixed position. You know, you're just arguing your case as opposed to doing the things that you'd want for, let's say citizens to be able to do: discuss an issue of shared concern. You'd want to be able to have people have time to think and see another person's point of view, and change their mind.

BRENT: It’s another form of discourse. I think that it has things that the debate model doesn't, and the debate model has things that more freewheeling discussion doesn’t. I think the structure of having two opposing sides who respect each other—you have to teach that in the context of the debate, and that I'm not debating you; I’m debating the idea you're advocating.

PETER: And right away, you’re taking away the possibility of an ad hominem attack, right? Only an idiot would say something like that! I wanted to underscore that point because

unfortunately look at even presidential debates now. There’s not a level of respect subtending the engagement. They're just trying to score the points with their audience, which is their base out there. That’s what they’re doing. These are the kinds of models that kids are seeing now when they're thinking What is debate look like, you know?

BRENT: Exactly. But it’s not what we teach.  

PETER: So respect has to be—good.

BRENT: Because competitive debate, I think everyone who's involved in it realizes that it reaches a select span of kids who are interested in doing it at that level, because it's intense. I believe it's the best teaching approach that there is—competitive debate—what it does for an individual is just absolutely incredible, but it'll only reach a narrow bandwidth. Classroom debate will introduce that to every kid. You can have debate in art class, you can have it in math class. I used to do it all the time in math class. And social studies is just perfect for it. It doesn't always have to be—it can be parliamentary debate, which is more of each individual presenting their position and trying to form a coalition around their idea, or the all of the role-playing stuff that Jason did in his classes.

VO: Jason, once again, is the social studies teacher, guitarist, and boon pal hanging out at Brent’s place the weekend we recorded—you heard his mellifluous baritone covering an old George Carlin bit at the top of the show.

BRENT: I mean those are kind of a different format of debate, when you set up a Continental Congress or you try Thomas Jefferson for treason, and you've got a defense lawyer and a team and the prosecution team … [to Jason] Am I describing this right?  

PETER: Well I think then just shout “Fake news! No collusion!” That’s all you have to do …

BRENT: See that’s the thing! And debate teaches you how to differentiate fact from fiction, not through rules. Just through the process of you and I debating an idea and knowing that if we're going to win the debate, it has to be based on fact.

PETER: It's all variations on How do you know? How do you know that this is the case? What evidence? What warrant? What are you going to present to let me see things the way you're seeing things? How do you know that what you're saying is the way that things are, or the way that things should be?—if you're doing a policy debate.

BRENT: What is the truth? Where is the ground under our feet?

PETER: Well it's different today. A bromide that you could have relied on throughout your debate coaching career was, to paraphrase or even quote [late NY Senator] Daniel Patrick Moynihan, “Everybody's entitled to their own opinion, but not their own set of facts.” Right? I mean, people could agree on that. [We used to be] like, “Okay, we got the facts. We may look at them differently …” But now, of course, as had been observed many times, I've got my set of facts, the people who listen to that radio station have their set of facts, the people who read Breitbart have their set of facts ... And this is part of what President Obama was talking about him in his Mandela speech on Monday [17 July 2018]: I can't have an argument with you about global warming if we're not going to come at this with an understanding of here's where scientific consensus is.

BRENT: Without a common foundation of things accepted as factual, all communication breaks down. And so, being able to determine what is factual and what is not, or at least being able to consider it in a very reflective and critical way is absolutely critical in modern education. And I think debate teaches that well, because you have to have evidence for what—now, what is evidence is also in flux—but you have to have evidence to support your argument. But the evidence never does the debating. It’s the human mind of the two debaters who are challenging: in that piece of evidence, does it reflect reality? Should you as a judge vote on this piece of evidence? And that is such powerful learning for, you know, a student in the 21st century … for a human being in the 21st century. And I don't think anything but debate teaches that so well because it's two student minds, each with their own construct, colliding into each other. And out of that collision, those contradictions that develop, a deeper understanding occurs. And your best debaters don't see the other team in the round as an opponent, but a collaborator in this great symphony of argumentation and when it's over between two incredible teams, it's like, “Wow! What we created in this last hour!” It wasn’t “you won, I lost.” It was like, “God, that was awesome!”

PETER: Is there an example that sticks with you about how the experience of debate changed a kid or, you know, changed the way she could think, or thought about herself? I mean, is there is there an example that sticks to you?

BRENT: I hesitate to say “Here's how debate really changed a kid” because I think what debate does is it touches what is inside that kid. And it just comes bursting forth and finds an outlet. Debate is an art form, and debaters are artists, and they have all of the personality quirks of artists. They really do! So I don't know, maybe it changed the context in which they were maturing and therefore affected their maturing process in a profound way, but it didn't change them. It was there; it just wasn't being given an opportunity to come forward. Really, debate is two minds colliding with each other and sharpening each other through the collisions. You know, I've struggled a lot with the structure of it being a competition, and I have to come down to: the competition is very healthy, if it is managed in a humane way—

PETER: And based on respect!

BRENT: And based on respect. Yes.

PETER: That’s a huge thing. We have so many examples of winning at any cost.

BRENT: That's, you know, and I believe the vast majority of debate coaches understand this, that they on that narrow band of students, they have more impact on the development of that person probably than anybody else but their parents will have in their life. And it's an awesome responsibility. And I, I'm proud to say the vast majority of debate coaches that I know do that awesomely.

VO: It’s hard to quantify Brent’s influence on the U.S. debate scene, through Science High in Newark, New Jersey, but also at the collegiate level, through his work with Rutgers University. Let me offer this quick anecdote as an example. I’ve noted that Robyn and I wanted a rock-n-roll wedding reception at Brentfest 2010, so it happened at one point that summer that I called Brent’s cell phone with a logistical question. He answered, but said pretty soon, “I can’t talk long. I’m at the White House.” One of Brent’s debaters had won the Top Speaker award in the Urban Debate National Championships, and President Obama was honoring her and a handful of stellar peers in the Oval Office. Such presidential attention to urban debate was unprecedented, but Education Secretary Arne Duncan had become a huge proponent after he saw the difference it had made when he was superintendent in Chicago. 

BRENT: The first all-Black female team to make it big on the national stage came from Newark Science, Wakilah Felton and Diana Dunker. So years later, the local cable network did a retrospective on Science High debate …

VO: Diana Dunker went from Science High to law school. She argued three cases before the [NJ] Supreme Court, two of them precedent-setting. At the time of the interview Brent is recalling, Dunker was Chief Operations Officer for the National Association of Urban Debate Leagues.

BRENT: They asked somewhat of the same question of how debate changes you and she said it was very simple. She said through debate, “I saw that if you prepared, you worked, you thought, then as soon as that door closed and the debate began, I realized that it didn't matter that they came from wealthy homes and I came from a poor home. It didn't make it matter what the color of my skin was and what the color of their skin was in an intellectual battle. It was even ground and we could win. We could win.” And she said, “That reverberated through my entire adult life when I would walk into a legal negotiation, or arguing in front of the Supreme Court. I no longer had the fear. I knew I could do it.” But so, that wasn't like we changed her. That was inside of her. She was a voracious reader before she came into debate. She had that drive, that intellectual spark. It just opened up the door for her where she could flourish.

VO: To close, Brent had a thought about bringing math and debate together.

BRENT: I learned through constructivism that human beings learn by having a particular construct of understanding that they’ve developed from past experience and then bumping into an experience that contradicts some of their current understanding, and then the mind goes into overdrive to resolve that.

PETER: Cognitive dissonance.

BRENT: That's the learning process. We're wired to not like cognitive dissonance and to find some way to make it better. And it struck me that math is very much that system internally, because all contradictions have to be resolved. And that's the core of debate: you have an affirmative case, a particular construct of understanding; the negative pokes at it; and you have to respond to that contradiction. And the debate that is the best one is a bouncing back and forth between the two, rising higher and higher towards What is the core truth?

VO: So grateful to Brent (a.k.a. Andy) Farrand for sharing some reflections about core truths and the teaching life. Thanks also to Jason Grant and Duane Harper Grant for their contributions to our soundtrack jam session, and thanks so much to you for listening, sharing, rating, and subscribing to this podcast—please let me know you’re doing all that! Thank you for spreading the word about Point of Learning to everyone you know curious about what and how and why we learn. Back at you just as soon as we can with a fall lineup sure to keep us all sharp! 


Peter Horn