A Lesson from a Washing Machine

My mind has been wandering back to the math class lately. I’ve missed it, and, given the current health concerns associated with the re-opening of schools, I may not be getting it back anytime soon. (At least in the form that I feel the most comfortable operating in). Perhaps it is the pendulum between anticipation and dread that has teaching and learning at the forefront of my awareness lately. Although this is not uncommon for me, absence does, as they say, make the heart grow fonder. It is, therefore, possible that this post represents my final descent into pandemic-induced psychosis; maybe this strained analogy symbolizes just how much I need the classroom back, and serves as a sort of Warshak test–math education style–where ink blot after ink blot of everyday experience suddenly holds latent lessons about the mathematics classroom. Maybe it’s just a way to air my dirty laundry1, to simply stop some thoughts from rattling around in my skull by writing them down. Tabling the discussion of my sanity for the time being, what follows is a quick story about my Saturday afternoon.

Our washing machine was broken for a week. Like any dutiful husband, my initial reaction was to let the violent banging work itself out, hoping the problem would come out in the wash2–so to speak. Today, we (my wife and I) finally settled into the task, and it was over in less than 3o minutes. That is, it would have been over if it were not attended to by an obsessive educationalist. After we were through, there was a moment of relief and accomplishment, but it was quickly replaced with a curiosity. How was it that two people with really no experience fixing washing machines were able to navigate the task?

Initially, I really only knew three things:

  • The experience was rewarding. Not just the resolution of the chore, but the entire process of resolving it.
  • We really had no blueprint to approach the task, and that made it more interesting.
  • This is what I want students to feel like when they are being mathematical in my classroom.

After reflecting on what, in particular, about the process might have granted this, typically mundane, chore its educative potency, I arrived at the following:

  • We began with tinkering. We moved the drum with our hands, trying to recreate the noise. We rocked the machine to see if it was unstable. We checked to see if any bolts or screws were loose or if any part of the shell could be pulled apart. All “aimless” tinkering, getting a sense of what we might be dealing with.
  • We only stuck to plans as long as they were useful. Because there was to recipe for fixing the problem, plans emerged through our tinkering. We felt something hard under the rubber seal, and so we pried it away, only to find that it was an electrical connection. This was immediately dismissed as inconsequential to our problem, and we looked elsewhere. No questions asked. No catastrophic melt down; no immediate need for assistance. Soon we noticed some markings on a plastic piece near the front, and, once pulled on, the bolt holding it securely in place quickly slid out of its socket. A new, useful plan emerged.
  • We focused on the good enough. Having isolated the problem, we noticed that the plastic washer that previously held the bolt in place was nowhere to be found. We found a spare washer from a jar filled with mismatched hardware, and installed. It wasn’t the exact part, but it adequately accomplished the same function–it was good enough.

Maybe this is the pandemic speaking, but I can’t shake the feeling that these same three features that I learned from my washing machine are also key features of potent mathematical experiences–both inside and outside the mathematics classroom.


  1. pun intended.
  2. pun intended, again.

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