Math: it really is fun

A few weeks ago, the Ted Radio Hour dropped a new episode in its podcast feed called “Don’t Fear Math.” It featured Ted Talks about math education, how to encourage more girls to study math, and prime numbers. Naturally, I loved it.

I wanted to share some idea’s from Dan Finkel’s talk: “Five Principles of Extraordinary Math Teaching”

His talk was excellent and really captured many of the reasons I love math and think that learning math (actually learning math, not just learning how to answer math questions on tests) is valuable for everyone. I was particularly struck by Finkel’s interview with Guy Raz because he articulated something I’ve felt for a long time. He says:

“But if you’re talking about, like, when did I really see mathematics as a beautiful subject, I did go to a math camp the summer after my ninth grade year. And that was the time where I really saw the beautiful math that most people don’t get to see until college or graduate school. And my first question was, why has no one shown me this before?”

That question: why has no one shown be this before? Struck me again and again after I got to calculus and started taking college mathematics classes. Math was fun. Math was creative. Math was beautiful. Math was philosophical. Where had this been before???

I recently argued with a friend on Facebook (breaking my cardinal rule of the internet, which is: don’t argue with people on facebook) about the value of math education and how much math we should require students to learn when she shared this article from slate: “Algebra II has to go.” Which Basically argues that since most people aren’t successful in college math classes, we should stop requiring that people take them.

Finkel, I believe, offers a better solution than eliminating math requirements (because as you’ll learn in math, many problems have multiple valid solutions). Rather than throwing out advanced math classes, we could engage with math as an invitation rather than a torment. We could bring the interesting ideas of problem solving and creative answers into education much earlier. We could make math class fun.

You don’t have to have a lot of extra training or updated curriculum to do this now – even with your kids at home. Finkel offers five principles for teaching math more effectively:

  1. Start with a question
  2. Students need time to struggle
  3. You are not the answer key
  4. Say “yes” to your students ideas
  5. Play

I’m thinking a lot about productive struggle and giving your kids time to struggle because I think that’s a missing piece here. So many people think, “if I didn’t get a great math SAT score then I’m not good at math.”

I disagree, and I think it come back to the difference between: “It’s hard” and “I can’t.”

If you didn’t get a great math SAT score, you probably never learned how to think mathematically, which means you could learn to think mathematically, you just haven’t yet. And I think it’s important to open that possibility because many parents pass on their math anxiety to their kids; many people feel overwhelmed by numbers and get taken advantage of by various types of lenders; many people believe misleading statistics and cherry picked data and make poor choices based on those. It’s never to late to start asking questions, allow yourself to struggle, say “I don’t know,” believe in your ideas, and play with numbers.

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