Jennifer L. Ruef for San Francisco Chronicle.
I travel a lot, and when I meet people, they often ask, “What do you do?” The simplest response is “I teach people how to teach math,” which seems to invite personal stories about learning mathematics. I have learned that many folks think they are not “math people.”
Let me begin and end by telling you in no uncertain terms: Whether you believe it or not, you ARE a math person.
Many people believe that mathematics lives in math classes, textbooks and the minds of “math people,” and that math people are human calculators. But this vision of what mathematics is, and what it can accomplish, misses so much.
I can now predict people’s horror stories — the fractions that brought them to tears, frustrations over what x was anyway, or the still-fresh-hell of logarithms and trigonometric identities. Perhaps you will recall the rhyme “ours is not to question why, just invert and multiply” for dividing by a fraction. As in:
6 ÷ ½ = 6 • 2/1 = 6 • 2 = 12
But why does that work?
We could ask an equivalent question, one that requires understanding the problem. How many times will ½ fit into 6? For example, how many half cups can you fit into six cups? Perhaps you have only a half-cup measure. Or what if you have six candy bars, and break each in half? Maybe you only want half of a candy bar at a time.
Suddenly the problem is very different — it is personal. And when you engage with mathematics as a personal creation, even abstract questions take on a life of their own. When we understand why something works, we are more likely to remember how it works, making correct answers more likely. Better living through better understanding. Or at least, perhaps more satisfaction.
Still not convinced you are a math person? Mathematics educator Felicia Darling lived on the Yucatan Peninsula for months to learn what indigenous Mayans thought mathematics was, and if they thought of themselves as math people. She learned that, like many Americans, they believed that mathematics lives in classes, texts and the minds of “math people.” Most did not believe they were math people, yet they innovatively solved everyday math problems.
No bicycles? No problem. Study a model, craft a bamboo frame, and attach castoff wheels, gears, cables and a chain. Think about the mathematics involved in engineering the frame, aligning the gears and estimating the ratios.
Need a taxi? Hop aboard a motorcycle cab. The motorcycle’s gas gauge is broken, so the cabbie calculates distance as a function of speed and time. That’s the classic distance = rate • time formula you might recall from algebra class. Darling documented case after case of practical applications of mathematical principles.
Fine, you say, but what can I tell my kid who hates math?
First of all, please do not tell them that you hate math, or that it’s OK to not like math, because you were never good at it. It turns out that fear of math can be passed along.
Maybe they are experiencing math class in much the same way you did. Teachers care deeply about their students, and sometimes this has a counterintuitive effect — some believe they must teach the way they were taught, even using timed math facts tests. Spoiler alert: Tying speed to math has a chilling effect on our ability to learn. Performance fear can freeze our access to working memory, making it nearly impossible to compute. Please don’t blame teachers — many do not think they are math people either.
But that still does not solve your problem as a parent — how to help your kids. Here is what you can do: Listen to them. Ask them to explain what they are working on, and how they think it works. See if you can figure it out together. Tell them they can call a friend. Encourage kids to work together. If they cannot complete the assignment, figure out what questions they can ask in class the next day. Talking about our ideas, especially the half-baked ones, is a very powerful way to learn.
What if math was far less about the answer, and far more about the journey of discovery?
Aside from homework, developing an eye for math and exploring it together helps us all to see the many ways math influences our lives. Playing games, solving puzzles, looking for patterns of any kind are all great ways to learn to love math. For more resources, visit www.youcubed.org.
The next time you find yourself inventing a solution to some problem — how to estimate a length of hose, which supermarket special is actually the better deal, which route will get you where you need to go the fastest, remember this: You, my friend, are a math person.
Jennifer L. Ruef teaches people how to teach math at the University of Oregon. Her research includes whether people see themselves as “math people,” and how power structures play out in classrooms. When not solving puzzles, she might be found performing on a trapeze, or as a springboard/platform diver.