In one of my classes, "Supporting Students with Special Needs," we recently had a couple guest speakers come to talk about autism. One of the many symptoms of autism spectrum disorders - this includes a wide range of problems, some more minor than others - was impulsivity. A classmate raised her hand to ask what that actually looks like in the classroom, and our guest instructor told us that it was sort of the extreme of "distracted and acting out" - yelling things out without raising his hand, getting out of her seat to wander the classroom, talking loudly to a classmate during class, etc. He described it as "one of those things where you just know it when you see it."
Later, I obliged in giving a demonstration.
There an interesting phenomenon that has been noted over the years with a particular kind of math problem. Here's a question for you:
Tim has some marbles. He gives two marbles to Jill, and now he has four marbles. How many marbles did Tim have to start?
If you said 'six,' you'd be correct. (As an aside, I say there's not enough information. We know he has marbles. We know he gives two of them to Jill. And we know he currently has four. We know nothing about whether he gave any marbles to other kids, or if he got any new marbles, or if he lost some, or if he beat up his little brother Mark and stole Mark's marbles. Thus, my answer.) It was determined that third grade was the average point for kids to be able to answer that question correctly.
Here's another question:
You have some cookies. A monster comes and eats two of your cookies, and now you have four cookies. How many cookies did you have at the beginning?
Six still, right? (Though maybe now some of you are thinking there's not enough information.) Turns out that most kindergarteners were able to answer this question correctly. Even though the math involved is the same (X-2 = 4, solve for X), there is a three-year difference in ability to correctly answer simply based on the wording of the question.
The guest instructor then put this scenario to us: What happens to the kindergartener who is able to successfully answer that first question? He's declared a genius, put in special advanced classes, praised for his logical reasoning skills and spectacular math potential, he takes AP Calculus and AP Physics and goes to MIT and gets an advanced degree in math. Great.
But what happens to the third grader who can't answer the second question right? He's "slow" and needs more attention, he's held back for more academic support, he grows up believing he's no good at math, he avoids the subject and fails classes for lack of effort, he... he...
As the instructor searches for the right example to really drive home his point, I helpfully suggest, "He becomes an English major!"
The class laughed and the instructor turned to my earlier classmate and said, "That's impulsivity."
Fortunately, later, when the instructor told us we are the "gatekeepers" of our students' learning, I was able to refrain from asking, "Are you the keymaster?"
I figured one demonstration was enough for that day.