What my dad taught me about learning.

The first time I saw the word ‘Calculus’, I was staring at the spines of several textbooks that sat on the bookshelf at home. I didn’t think much of them; I knew they were my parents’, and that they were from their college days, but had no other awareness of what the topic actually was. I did assume that the reason there were so many of them was because my parents must have liked them so much. After further investigation, I learned that they were mostly my dad’s books. His secret was out: he must have loved Calculus. I believed this for a while.

When my older brother took Calculus, these books came off the shelf occasionally as a resource, though I don’t know if this was his decision or my dad’s. From what I knew, my brother breezed through Calculus. I know he worked hard, but it also seemed to come fairly naturally to him. I remember conversations that my parents had about not knowing where my brother got this talent from. They admitted at this point that it couldn’t have been from either of them. My dad had taken Calculus multiple times and the collection of textbooks was the evidence that hung around for no particularly good reason.

This astounded my young brain for a couple of reasons. It was mind-boggling to me that my parents ever had trouble doing anything. They always seemed to know just what to do in different situations – how could they not do well in a class designed to teach them something? It was also the first time I ever remember learning that my dad was not successful in everything he tried to do. This conflicted deeply with what I understood his capabilities to be.

As I understood it, he just knew everything.

When I was nine and my parents had bought me a keyboard to learn to play piano for the first time, there was no AC adapter in the box I had unwrapped only moments before. My dad scrounged around among his junk boxes and drawers and found one with the correct tip, but the polarity was wrong. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to start jamming that night – it was late and a trip to the store wasn’t an option. He wasn’t going to submit to that as a possibility – he took the adapter downstairs to the basement and had me follow him. There was soldering involved, and electrical tape. I had no idea what he was doing. Moments later, however, he appeared with the same adapter and a white label that said ‘modified’. We plugged it in to the keyboard and it lit up, ready for me to play and drive my parents crazy with my rendition of . I now understand that he switched the wires around to change the polarity – I did it myself with some students recently in robotics. At the time though, it seemed like magic. I just knew I had the smartest dad in the world.

His mantra has always been that if it can be fixed, it should be fixed, no matter the hilarity of the process. I watched him countless times take in the cast-off computers of other people who asked him if he knew how to fix them. Thinking back, I don’t know that he ever specifically answered that question. His usual response was (and still is) “I’ll take a look.” So he would work long hours with a vacuum, various metal tools, and a gray multimeter (that I think he still has) laid out like a surgeon investigating a patient. I rarely had the patience to sit and watch. I would see the results of his work: sheets of yellow legal pad paper filled with notes and diagrams scrawled along the way. In the end, he would inevitably find a solution, though often at this point the person who had asked him to fix the item had gone and bought a new one. I don’t recall ever believing my dad thought it was a waste.

We also worked on things together to try to get closer in my early teens. We both took tests to get amateur radio licenses. I came to really enjoy learning Morse code and got the preparation books to climb the license ladder. He commented repeatedly as I zipped through the books about memorizing the books and not understanding the underlying theory of resonant circuits and antenna diagrams. That was true – at the time I just wanted to pass the tests. I didn’t understand that the process of learning was the valuable part, not the end point. I didn’t see that. I just continued to believe that the tests were a means to an end, just as I viewed through my thirteen year old brain that his herculean efforts to fix things was a means to getting things fixed., and nothing more.

My dad is one of the smartest people I know. As I’ve grown older, however, I have come to understand that it wasn’t that about knowing everything. He instead had been continuously demonstrating what real learning is supposed to be. It was never about knowing the answer; it was about finding it. It wasn’t about fixing a computer, it was about enjoying figuring out how it can be fixed, however much frustration was involved. It wasn’t just about saving money or avoiding a trip to the store to buy an electric adapter. It was about seeing that we can understand the tools we use on a regular basis well enough to make them work for us.

I have seen time and time again how he mentors people to make them better at what they do. I have seen it in the way he mentors FIRST robotics teams as a robot inspector at the Great Lakes regional competition in Cleveland. I have seen it in the way he has spent his time since selling the company he founded with partners years ago. He chooses to do work that matters and makes sure that others are right there to learn beside him. There were times growing up when, admittedly, I just wanted him to fix things that needed to be fixed. To his credit, he insisted on involving me in the process, even when I protested or became impatient.. I didn’t see it when I was younger. Knowing how to go about solving problems is among the most important skills that everyone needs. I was getting free lessons from someone that not only was really good at it, but cared enough about me to want me to learn the joy of figuring things out.

One of my students this year was really into electronic circuits and microcontrollers. He soldered 120 LEDs into a display and wanted to use an Arduino to program it to scroll text across it. The student’s program wasn’t working and he didn’t know why. I had only been tangentially paying attention to the issues he was having, and when he was visibly frustrated, I pulled up a chair and sat next to him, and then said ‘let’s take a look.” We went through lines of code and found some missing semicolons and incorrectly indexed arrays, and I asked him to tell me what each line did. I was only a couple steps ahead of him in identifying the problem, but we laughed and tried making changes while speaking out loud what we thought the results would be. At one point, he said to me “Mr. Weinberg, you’re so smart. You just know what to do to fix the program.”

I immediately corrected him. I didn’t know what was wrong. We were able to make progress by talking to each other and experimenting. It wasn’t about knowing just what to do. It was about figuring out what to try next and having strategies to analyze what was and was not working. I learned this from a master.

On this Father’s day (that also happens to be the day before my dad’s birthday), I celebrate this truth: much of what I do as a teacher comes from trying to channel my dad’s habits while confronting big challenges. I don’t want my students to memorize steps to pass tests; I want them to understand well enough to be able to solve any challenge set before them. I don’t want to fix my students’ problems – I want to help them learn to fix problems themselves. I don’t want my students to be afraid to fail; I want them to understand through example that failure leads to finding a better way.

I am grateful for all that I have learned from him., and I try to teach my students what he has taught me about learning at every opportunity. It would be fine by me if I ever need to do Calculus for him – I’d still be in the red.