The Subaru Effect (in the math classroom & noticing my white privilege)

Earlier today I walked into my local coffee shop and was greeted by Jahlie, a former student I had 10 years ago as a 7th grade student.  Before Jahlie took my order she exclaimed, “I was just talking about you.”  “Yikes!” I thought.  She then said “I just told my boss about the ‘Subaru effect’ that you taught us about.”  Just in case you don’t believe me that this happened, I took out my phone and made her recreate our experience.  Check it out below (apologies to my film maker cousin, Stew…I know, I know – I should turn my phone when I make a video).

I am always surprised a bit about what my former students remember from their time in my classroom.  It is almost never what I would hope they say.  But I smiled when she told me and thought, I should blog about this.

So, What is the ‘Subaru Effect’?  

Years ago – like 20-30 years ago – I saw a news story where someone was talking about what they called the ‘Subaru effect’.   Essentially it works this way.  One day you go and buy a new car.  You decide to buy a Subaru for the first time.  The next week as you are driving your new Subaru around town you see Subaru’s everywhere you go.  You wonder why you are seeing so many Subaru’s when you would have sworn last week there were very few Subaru’s on the road.  The ‘Subaru Effect’ is your brain being awoken to seeing something around you that was always there, but you just had never paid attention to it before.

I have never owned a Subaru, but my most recent car purchase was a Dark Blue VW Passat.  When I bought the Dark Blue car I thought, ‘I never see cars this color’.  As I drove the car off the lot I started noticing dark blue cars everywhere.  My conscious mind was awoken to noticing the cars.  For years I had have mentioned this effect in my classrooms.

When I had Jahlie as as student I had to teach a Social Studies elective to 7/8th graders.  I chose Economics because it seemed like something kind of mathy.  One day I challenged them to name the most powerful person in the world.  I told them it was someone who was on the news all the time.  Students named the president and other leaders of other countries.  They named sport and music stars and all kinds of other people.  Each time I shook my head, ‘no’.  I reminded them we were in an ‘economics’ course so this person must have something to do with money and I introduced them to the Federal Reserve Chairman at the time, Ben Bernanke, and told them about his role in controlling the markets world wide. All my students swore they had never heard of him despite me saying he was in the news all the time.  The next day all kinds of students came to class and exclaimed “Ben Bernanke was on the news last night.  The news said he raised interest rates.”  For the rest of the year these 7th/8th grade students would tell me every time they saw Bernanke on the news.  I had awoken their eyes to the financial world that had always surrounded them.

When Jahlie reminded me of this and the ‘Subaru Effect’, I went home and googled it and nothing came up.  Nothing.  I thought I had perhaps made it up.  After a bit more googling I realized it was a real thing it just had other names.  (though I prefer my name, the ‘Subaru effect’).  This phenomenon goes by  the names: Baader-Meinhof PhenomenonOR  frequency illusion OR simply put it isCognitive Bias‘.  Check out this video for more information.

I love these quotes from the video…

“our brains are pattern recognizing superheros, able to find meaning in countless pieces of data”

YES!  Isn’t that really why all of us are mathematicians.  

I also love…

what is interesting to me are all the patterns that are zipping by in your day to day life that you don’t register at all. The Baader-Meinhof principle proves that we only see the things we are looking out for.”  

He goes on to say in the video…

“It shows how ignorance can be maintained through a lack of active learning.”

The ‘Subaru Effect’ has been a lens that I bring to my planning for my classroom since I learned about it.  I think about it so often that I usually end up telling my students about it sometime each school year.  I don’t set out to teach them about Subaru’s, it just happens because it is always prevalent in my brain as I plan for making them all successful in math.

Here are a few examples from my classroom.

#1:  Seeing math like a math teacher sees math.

If the Baadof-Meinhof Phenomenon is correct then we only see things we are looking out for.  If you’ve ever felt like your students should know something in your class because they’ve seen it so many times, perhaps the problem is you have not given their brain the lens or structure for it to register that what you are teaching them is important.  Once you help them see what you can see they will start to see it all the time.graph-1

Here is a recent example of where my focus on trying to help students see the structure/relationships in graphs that I see worked for the first time in my career.  I teach Advanced Algebra (Alg II or Alg Trig).  I always have
students that do not see the infinite number  of invisible points on tgraph-2he functions we graph.  They see the line
or curve, but don’t see it as points.  For example, in a linear equation pictured many just see the blue line. graph-3 Many students struggle to write an equation of this line is slope-intercept form because they do not see the points on the line that will help them write the equation.  Many students will see the point (0, 2), the y-intercept, but may struggle to see the points that intersect grid-lines that will help them calculate slope.

In a recent unit on ‘function transformations’, we wanted them to see a set of important points (vertex, inflection points….) in each of the parent functions we were studying.  In the past we had created tables of parent functions and graphed 5-7 points before drawing the curve.   It looked something like this:points-on-curve

We would then talk about the relationship of the points on the parabola to the vertex, waannotatednting students to see that in the parent graph there are symmetric points one unit over and one unit up and another set of symmetric points 2 units over and 4 units up.  Students who can see this relationship generally have an easier time with transformations of the parent functions when we change the values of the parameters a, h and k.  No matter what we did to encourage students to see these points on the curve, many students could not make the connection between the table and the graph of the curve.

So here is what we did differently this year.  I created this visual to start the unit and we did some noticing and wondering about the points on this visual.  points-function-dots

This visual was void of axes, lines or curves.  It just had important points of the parent functions we would study in this unit.  I have no idea why this worked, but at the end of the unit – students begged to have this visual as part of the reference sheet they could use on the test for 10 minutes.  Many students found this graphic useful and we saw students ability to apply parameters to parent functions correctly increase.  Their ability to explain what happened to the shape and location of a graph when looking at an equation increase.  It seemed like students cwith-curvescould see structure in graphs that had been invisible to them before.  Some students drew in the curves on the visual in their notebooks & some did not, but all annotated the visual noticing the relationship & location of points in each of the functions we were studying.  The points for these parent functions were my students ‘Subaru’ in math.  Once they saw it, they started noticing the points in many other functions.

Side Note:  If you want a copy of the visual I used with my students you can download it here:   what-do-you-notice-function-dots and what-do-you-notice-function-dots-for-notebook

Understanding the Baadoff-Meinhoff Pehnomenon (‘Subaru Effect’ for short) gives us teachers an interesting lens to look at curriculum planning.  What can we do in our classrooms to help students see the invisible in math.  How do we help them notice the patterns right in front of their eyes.  How do we empower them to see things that will cause them to see these things around them all over the place.  This power to see things is empowering.  for students.  I challenge you to think about how the ‘Subaru Effect’ can play out in our classroom.

#2:  Seeing my white-privilege

15-20 years ago my district started training all of the staff in an equity framework.  As part of this training (Courageous Conversations from Pacific Educational Group)   named for myself for the first time ‘white-privilege’. white-priv-def I defined it.  I talked about. I read about it. I noticed its role in my life.  More importantly all my colleagues were with me on the same journey.  Over the last many years there have been many forms of this training in my urban district.  It is frustrating at times, because it seems like we are stuck in a rut just talking about equity issues (we do lots and lots of this) but it is void of action.

My larger district construct may be frustrating, but on a more individual level, this shared language with colleagues has allowed us to look at the role race plays in our lives.  When ‘white-privilege’ was given a name for me I started noticing what had previously been invisible to me – the fact that as a middle class white woman I walk through life never thinking about things my peers of color and students of color think about all the time.  I was humbled.  I also started changing what I did in my classroom.

White privilege was my ‘Subaru Effect’ in my classroom & life.  I started noticing it in the classroom, when I was shopping, in conversations with family and friends.  I could not unsee it.  When I saw its role in my life I had to say something I had to act.  I had to change my personal actions in my classroom and in my life.  I had to learn more.  I had to read.  I had to listen.

(side note:  I am sitting right now hesitating to type my next words because I know what a politically charged world I live in and have prior experience with internet trolls lashing out- Ugh.  I am not sure why I get nervous as my white privilege affords me the privilege of having little repercussions for my next words).

This last summer a police shooting happened in my neighborhood.  It made national headlines due to it happening days after another high profile philando-castilleshooting in New Orleans and due to its aftermath being viewed by millions on Facebook Live. Philando Castile was pulled over by police.  At the time they told Philando that it was because of a broken tail light.  Within an hour of his death I had viewed the facebook live video shot by his girlfriend.  When I saw it I thought several things – 2 I’ll share quickly here:

#1:  I drive the same road Philando was killed on.  At the time of this shooting the tail light on my car had been out for 4 months.  Not once had I been pulled over.  (I know.  I should have gotten it fixed long ago, it is fixed now)

#2:  If I had been pulled over, I am pretty sure I would have left that situation alive – even if I had told the officer I had a gun permit and/or gun on me and acted in a similar manner as Philando.

It is my belief race played a large role in the events of that evening.  In the days that followed I participated in a couple of marches and loudly shouted ‘Black Lives Matter’ surrounded by thousands in my community and many of my friends and colleagues.

In my life I have friends and family who hear ‘Black Lives Matter’ and hear it as only a cry against police.  They share on social media phrases like ‘all lives matter’ and ‘blue lives matter’.  They see my actions in support of BLM as terrorist threats against their way of life.  I’ve been frustrated that they don’t see what I see.  When I say Black Lives Matter, I am not saying that other lives don’t matter as much, I am saying that there is demonstrable evidence that black lives matter less than white lives to the criminal justice system.  I am also saying that this unfortunately happens in classrooms.  I am saying this to wake both myself and others up to looking at how we can change this.

As a teacher, when my unconscious biases cause me to make decisions that harm students, this harm is often invisible.  I do feel for Police.  When their unconscious biases get it wrong, death is a possible outcome.  As teachers we are afforded the privilege of being in a profession that our mistakes do not result in death and make the news.  That said, my unconscious biases can result in just as much harm in students.  When I assume that students of color can’t learn the same level of math as my other students and teach them half of Algebra in a year versus the entire curriculum, my actions are screaming to my students that I don’t believe you can go to college.  My actions are causing them to enter the post-secondary world unprepared to be successful.  When I am not educating myself about issues of race and equity, I can cause harm to my students that will have lasting effects in their life.

I need to learn more and so do all of us.  98% of Minnesota’s teaching staff is white.  We owe it to our students to educate ourselves on matters of race.

For more information on white privilege or issues of equity I highly recommend the following:

The Baadof-Meinhof Phenomenon says we only see the things we are looking out for.  I humbly ask that you make a deep understanding of ‘white privilege’ your personal ‘Subaru Effect’ as you enter 2017.  If you have good resources for this, please send them my way.  I have lots left to learn.

Start by listening to Royce Mann, age 14.  “White Boy Privilege”.


Sara VanDerWerf

I am Sara Van Der Werf, a 24-year mathematics teacher in Minneapolis Public Schools. I have taught math in grades 7-12 as well as spent several years leading mathematics at the district office. I currently teach Advanced Algebra at South High School and I'm also the current President of the Minnesota Council of Teachers of Mathematics (MCTM). I am passionate about encouraging and connecting with mathematics teachers. I'd love to connect via twitter.  Join the community.  Tweet me @saravdwerf.

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