Opening up a world of math for children

An engineer friend of mine just posted this article from the NY Times:

“Is Algebra Necessary?

A TYPICAL American school day finds some six million high school students and two million college freshmen struggling with algebra. In both high school and college, all too many students are expected to fail. Why do we subject American students to this ordeal? I’ve found myself moving toward the strong view that we shouldn’t.”

My friend made this comment:

“This is an old article, but having just finished what is likely my last ever math class, I start to wonder why I enjoyed and excelled in math in K-12. I do believe that most US students are told by their parents and teachers–not to mention by pop culture–that math is boring, uncool, and most harmfully, hard. I was never told that math was hard: I was told that math was fun and interesting and incredibly useful, thanks to encouraging parents and teachers, thanks to math-related activities like robotics and music. And so, it was.

STEM fields that demand algebraic thinking are expanding at astronomical rates. Eliminating or dumbing down algebra for all but the most talented students is certainly /not/ the answer if we want to continue to excel as a nation on the forefront of technology. But the current education systems of waiting until 7th, 8th, 9th grades to begin learning algebra and then teaching it sans applications and almost exclusively for standardized tests isn’t the right path either — and as the author asserts, it’s the primary catalyst for dropouts in both high school and college. I can certainly see both sides of this argument. No easy answers.

I agree. I always did well in math, but I don’t really remember enjoying it until the 12th grade. 12TH GRADE!!! Why? Because until then I didn’t have a single math teacher who taught with passion or even approached the subject with the idea that it could actually be fun or…even more importantly…a CREATIVE pursuit. 

In the 12th grade, I took AP AB Calc and I had a great teacher who taught with a great deal of passion and encouraged us to learn math in a creative way. When I graduated, he wrote in my yearbook that I was perhaps the best math student he had ever had.

But, by then it was too late. Math just was not on my priority list. I was 18 and going to college and I didn’t have the years of practice and passion behind me that it would take to excel in any mathematical pursuit in an Ivy league school. I can’t even imagine where I’d be now if I had been taught from a young age that math (or, God, even physics) could be creative, fun, and beautiful.

Now that I’m engaged to a mathematician, I find myself really envious of him at times that this whole amazing intellectual world of numbers was never really unlocked for me…and that’s the thing…it’s something that needs to be unlocked FOR you…from a young age…because it’s not obvious that math is a beautiful and creative pursuit. A 5 year old can listen to a symphony or view a painting and appreciate the beauty on some level, but a 5 year old can’t read a math publication and immediately become impassioned. Very few people naturally take to numbers from a young age…most of us have to be shown the possibilities, if that makes sense.

But, with computers it’s getting easier to expose children to math, physics, and engineering. I can tell you that if I ever have children, they will have a much different introduction to math than I had.



One thought on “Opening up a world of math for children

  1. Heh, you’re actually channeling a little Plato here. I’d look up the exact quote, but those books are back in the U.S. He said something along the lines of “of all the arts, mathematics is the only one that requires study to be appreciated.”

    I agree that what is taught to most kids is at odds with what’s fun. Some would even argue that it’s at odds with what’s useful:

    He replies to this interesting exchange of views:

    I think a certain level of numeracy, and some intuition for functions, enough to know, say, the difference between linear and exponential growth is important for everyone (I don’t mind if you forget those words, though). But many things that are taught are much less central to the average person’s education.

    Finally, one way you can be made enthusiastic about math at an early age: have a mathematical mom!

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