Sunday, September 09, 2007

Thinking About Math

Last week my son expressed some interest in doing some work in a First grade math workbook that someone had given him. I dug it out for him and he started on the first page. It was basic addition, and the first problem had the number written in the answer blank with light gray lines. "This is easy!" he proclaimed, and set off for the next problem.

Somewhere shortly after he began to look at me with upset in his eyes. He was busily counting his fingers, would find the right answer, but forget it as soon as he said it. Then he would forget how to write the number he wanted to give as the answer. In just a few minutes he was miserable, feeling terribly stupid, and feeling like he hated math.

Oh dear, I thought.

Now, being of the unschooling mindset I really have no agenda of him accomplishing that workbook, or any workbook. But I know he loves math and numbers. And I know that I relate to learning math facts as quite a bit of fun, but he doesn't. So (again, being of the unschooling mindset) I told him I really want to understand what makes math fun for him and what kills the interest.

So I posted to a yahoo group I belong to for "creative homeschoolers" which emphasizes learning with right-brained kids.

What resulted was quite a revelation about my own attitudes toward math.

When I was in the early primary grades, we did lots of timed tests. I remember really loving these. I loved the thrill of racing through them to get done before the time was up. I wasn't too concerned about getting all the answers right; what I zeroed in on was beating the clock. I did manage to learn my math facts along the way.

In middle school we had a test for advanced math placement, and even though I didn't make the cut by test score, my teacher believed I should be in the advanced class, so in I went. We did independent study books. Again, my goal was to race through the suckers as fast as I could! I recall that in one particular unit I scored better on the pretest than on the posttest. I didn't always do all that well; if I didn't already know the concept I more or less blew off the chapter and wrote down something to finish it. I either had little interest in learning any math, or was put off by it as either boring or difficult or both.

I adored Algebra, and had a teacher who required us to show our work for each step, which made a lot of sense to me and really helped me nail the understanding. Geometry I wobbled through, but never really understood much of it. Trig. I sort of enjoyed, even though I sometimes did very poorly in it, and I do recall laying in my bed some nights completely stressed over how hard it was. I had a love-hate relationship with it. Advanced Math was the last class I took, as a Junior, and although I can't tell you too much about what I learned, I know I did sort of enjoy it and got good grades. Those awful story problems though!

But then I was DONE, and intended never to look back. My college and graduate studies were in humanities, and I was never again required to touch math. Suited me just fine.

First of all, I see the aspects of math I liked are very unnatural to right-brained, creative, visual thinkers. Memorizing facts, painful. Timed tests, no thanks. Going step by step to reach a solution; who needs it. (These observations gleaned mainly from the book Upside-Down Brilliance, confirmed by the aforementioned list.)

But I realized that for me, this is what math has been reduced to. In many ways, I have not matured beyond my 7 year old self when it comes to doing math. I still balance my checkbook doing subtraction exactly as my 2nd grade teacher taught me, which is to strike out the number in the tens column, write the number one lower above it, carry the tens to the ones column, and subtract. If I think hard I can come up with 45-7 in my head, but I will probably still double check it by working through the steps.

So imagine my surprise when women on this list suggested games like Set. "That's math?!" I wrote back. I play Set quite frequently, but think of it more as a pattern or logic game. Well, patterns and logic is what math really is, they told me. Really? You don't say.

Essentially many suggested I need to deschool my mind about math and realize how it exists in things like art, music, even poetry. Of course now that I think about it I see what they mean, but I've always found those things to be deeply intuitive (like a sense of rhythm or the ability to see what patterns are pleasing to the eye -- the former I have, the latter I don't) and math definitely has not been in my intuitive category.

The DVD The Joy of Thinking was a recommended resource (for me, not for my son). I requested the first part from the library, and look forward to it. I hope that as I begin to see math as more than memorizing a few facts and trying to be fast, or as some subject I took in school but can't tell you beans about today (or as knowing how to use a calculator), that I will be in a better position to help my son explore and enjoy the world of math on his own terms.

1 comment:

Christine said...

Great approach!

I'm sitting here, today, really working on MYSELF as I help my child with Tourettes find interest in a subject, instead of obsessing on a tic and frustration.

Always on your toes ... that's my motto!