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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Snover

...washing the dishes

Updated: Nov 24, 2021

I often tell my students to think about washing the dishes. Dishwashing is one of the high points of my day. I can turn on a show or a podcast, zone out, and do something productive. When I’m finished, the kitchen is clean and my hands are nice and warm.

Here’s the thing — the process is mostly mindless, but it’s dangerous to turn the brain off completely. I might scrub away at a dish or a pan, not watching what I’m doing. I might stack cups and plates precariously in the dish rack. But when it comes time to wash sharp knives and fragile wineglasses, I have to give my full attention to what my hands are doing.

I have failed at this before, with disastrous results. One time I washed a champagne flute with all of the strength I would use for a plastic tumbler, and I broke off a chip of glass in my hand. I dropped the flute and it shattered in the sink. I was lucky to avoid slicing my finger

Another time, I did slice my finger. We had just recently gotten a new set of knives, and I carelessly scrubbed it as if it was a dull butter knife. It quickly cut through the sponge and dug into my fingertip. I felt like an idiot for paying more attention to what I was watching than what I was doing. I think it was a Sixers game.

Ideally, once a student has some practice tests under their belt, most problems should feel like mindless gruntwork. An experienced test taker should be able to cruise through most problems on autopilot, spending their mental energy on bubbling bubbles, or avoiding traps. But every now and then a problem comes along that demands attention.

This problem will be different for every student. Some people excel at punctuation but struggle with transitions. Some people have no problem with parabolas, but freeze up at the first sign of a circle. I’ve seen students flawlessly multiply fractions, only to be undone by accidentally thinking that 6+7 = 15.

So, keep an eye on your speed, and be careful when you’re doing something a little dangerous. Part of the reason that I emphasize repetition so much is that we want the actual thinking about the problem to be almost automatic. That way, your brain is free to focus on the possible dangers of what you’re doing. Calculating a slope, checking a Y-intercept, adding and subtracting negative numbers: these are like washing a sharp knife. It’s not too dangerous, but if you aren’t careful you can end up with a painful mess.


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