Do You Like Math?

Dear Friends,

Do you like math?

The answer to this seemingly simple and innocent question can evoke an astonishing array of impassioned responses. Some people think about math and start to squirm and grimace, while others wear the mantle of “mathematician” with the comfort of a favorite warm sweater. Why would that be? Are we all hard-wired to either love or hate the study of numbers? That would seem a bit strange!

While visiting my family this past weekend, I think I uncovered some important personal information on this subject. My younger brother and I realized that we both stopped thinking of ourselves as mathematicians, or even “people who like math,” at exactly the same age because of exactly the same reasons. In fourth grade, we were both asked by the same teacher to memorize our multiplication tables and to take a series of timed tests that were graded for accuracy and speed. I remember the test well: five columns of single digit multiplication problems printed out in purple from the mimeograph machine. Just the sight of the test made my nerves start to jangle.

Looking back, neither my brother nor I felt like we really understood what we were doing when we multiplied two numbers together. We were simply spitting out numbers from our memory bank that were devoid of meaning. Needless to say, neither of us did particularly well on these tests, and we both felt intimidated, discouraged, and totally shut down by the whole experience.

I bring this up, because I spent a large chunk of Tuesday afternoon talking with Upstairs Randolph teachers about the exact same issue of how to teach multiplication in elementary school. The differences in approach could not be more marked. At Randolph, students are often working together, grappling with real-life multiplication problems, and expressing their answers in a variety of ways. A teacher might ask for answers to be given in sets of cubes that have been counted and stuck together instead of in written numbers. Usually, teachers then ask for students to explain how they came to their answer, and then help facilitate the rich discussion that ensues. This might be followed by counting games in which students count up by, say, sevens or nines. Number puzzles are often used as well as flash card games.

The students at Randolph are totally immersed and engaged in math, developing a deep understanding of what they are doing before moving on to issues of speed and memorization. The study of math is presented to them as an exciting invitation to become lifelong mathematicians, and I have a pretty good idea that one day, when they are asked as an adult “Do you like math?” they will simply smile, and nod their head in a confident “Yes”.

Be well,

Ben


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