Case Study: Adam

February 10, 2023

Adam was a second child but a faster learner than his older brother, who was naturally a hard worker. Not that Adam wasn’t serious and diligent; he was economical and therefore appeared lazy in comparison. As a junior in high school, he understood that some assignments were largely a waste of time, and he scorned any activity he saw as busywork. So far, he hadn’t found a singular passion, and he wasted little time trying to find one (as if, he assumed, it would eventually find him). He was “better” at math and science (his words), but I’d insist that he was in fact equally skilled at reading and writing. Mathematics seemed a more integral part of his identity. His friends tended to be math-inclined and they were all on the robotics team together. Because I tutored some of his friends, too, I knew that Adam related to them in a fashion typical for a high school boy: by giving them a hard time and a mischievous smile. This was especially the case around math, engineering, and robotics, meaning that Adam’s ability to come up with answers in his head to questions in these subjects was integral to his sense of self.

On the SAT, Adam first scored in the mid-1300s. For many students, that’s a score achieved only after hours of guidance and practice. Adam, however, was frustrated with his performance. Like many precocious students who unfortunately are told as much by adults time and again before they actually apply themselves to anything in life, Adam felt that he should have started with a perfect or near-perfect math score. Reading, on the other hand, was a different matter. He liked to read but struggled in honors and AP English Literature, especially with poetry. Mastery of subjects and assignments that were loosely literary did not come naturally to him. He wanted reading and literary analysis to have more concrete answers—or as he bluntly put it, “English class is stupid.” In addition, Adam’s older brother had aced the SAT after working with me. From that I was able to surmise the general expectations Adam would have for himself in our tutoring sessions. I am sure he worried about realizing those expectations, although he managed to maintain a too-tired-to-really-care attitude about everything, usually because of late nights playing video games or working on robotics.

For students like Adam, significant improvement typically involves a shift in psychology and behavior around learning rather than a focus on concept or skill acquisition. Confronted with such a student, some tutors might think, “How can I ‘help’ Adam? He is already so smart. He really just needs to self-study.” Or “This will probably be an easy student to teach: he already knows a lot of math, and he clearly cares about his studies.”

But veteran savant tutors know better. First, when a student associates math with their self-image, they resist learning from anyone. Being good at math in Adam’s mind involved intuitively knowing the answer without trying or showing his work. This typical attitude among students like Adam illustrates how quickly we forget that math is used to solve problems, and yet students like Adam tend to admire people who aren’t solving problems without realizing that the “problems” they’re answering without thinking don’t actually meet the definition of a problem because they’re easy!

As such, whenever we reviewed math toward the beginning of our work together, we fell into a familiar pattern. Once Adam identified an approach to a problem that satisfied him and that corrected a prior mistake he had made, he stopped paying attention to me. Alternatively, if he didn’t understand a problem initially, he’d get lost trying to show me how he did understand it while I’d patiently watch until he gave up.

In a sense, school had narrowed Adam’s curiosity about his “favorite subject” and eliminated any notion that learning could be a team sport. When he got an answer correct, he was frustrated if I didn’t move on right away. When he got one wrong, he was quick to try to convince me that the discovery I helped him make had been on the tip of his tongue.

He didn’t understand the basic reality that improving meant seeing frameworks of understanding beyond those he came prebuilt with. He was so stuck on proving his talents that he couldn’t improve them. Adam had lost sight of the meaning of learning and failed to recognize the irony of his parents paying me hundreds of dollars an hour to pat him on the back and praise his natural talents in math.

As we progressed, I would appeal to his sense of vanity around math and one-upmanship by joking that, if he got anything wrong for which he could have employed a new way of thinking that I had taught him, I would “hunt him down and take him out.” This sort of communication incorporated the elements that he found persuasive: I got him to step outside of his comfort zone by both respecting his intelligence and appealing to his sense of humor.

Meanwhile, our work on reading followed its usual path of slow but steady progress. Because of how I communicated with him and the ripple effects on his thinking and behavior both inside and outside of sessions, Adam indeed got his perfect score in math on the first official SAT he took. This was sooner than I had anticipated. Reading took longer (as it does for most bright high school students who don’t read outside of school), but the fact that Adam had learned and improved in math increased his trust in me and therefore his willingness to accept my guidance. These smaller changes on his part made real change possible in short order: he eventually earned a near-perfect score in reading, too.

This excerpt was taken from Ian Siegel’s book School Sucks Your Child Doesn’t, The Secret to Unlocking Your Child’s Untapped Potential. You can order the book here

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