Math is on my mind these days. Last weekend, I posted a link to a TED Talk where Stanford mathematics education professor Jo Boaler argued that the way math is taught in schools these days forces students to answer all the wrong questions. Everyone, she argues, can be a “math person”. That made me think back to my own high school days. I considered myself to be in the literary crowd. I had a “language brain”. I loved writing and reading and analyzing literature and learning foreign languages—and I was good at it. I was a good student, but if someone had asked me, I would not have professed to be good at math. But here’s the thing: I loved logic problems; I begged my mom to buy me magazines of them at the grocery store and did them in my spare time. I took AP calculus in high school and tested out of all my math requirements before university. How is that not a math person?
Praising the child’s effort and not their natural ability—that’s nothing new. But the idea that we all can be good in many of these academic subjects that are traditionally funnelled in the school system, that’s exciting. That’s full of possibility. What’s even more intriguing, albeit sobering, is that the academic talents of many kids go unrecognized because they aren’t seeing things the way their teachers or mentors are, they aren’t solving problems “the right way”, they aren’t displaying their genius in a way that whichever adult is guiding them can recognize. They aren’t saying the answers the teacher is waiting for.
And this is true even for something as “black and white” as math. I love Boaler’s example of the increasing block pyramid. A typical question related to this problem would be, “How many blocks are in Case n?” But what if we asked a different question? (If you haven’t already, watch the video linked above. It’s totally worth your time.) Another veteran math teacher once told me that if the rural poor were better acquainted with logic, the U.S. wouldn’t be in the political situation it is today. Ahem.
My friend Luba leads Building Club at the Nook. Every week, she gives the students a problem to solve, and they have to build something that responds to her requirements. They’ve built boats and cars and shelters—ones that have had to meet standards such as floating for one minute, traveling in a straight line for a given distance, and resisting the elements. The last time, the kids were also given the restraint of a budget and had to “buy” their supplies. She didn’t show them how to build the boat or the car or the shelter. She doesn’t even give them suggestions on how to keep something waterproof or suggest a material that floats better than another. She gives them access to cardboard, tape, straws and popsicle sticks and says…go at it!
So when she tipped me off to a math program that she’s trying with her kids called Math Inspirations, I was more than a little bit curious. The program is based on a “Discovery Method” where the students struggle through a given mathematical concept to “discover” it on their own—and own it. As founder Emily Dyke says, no one taught Newton calculus. It’s about being less of a teacher and more of a mentor. It’s about giving kids space to discover math, to love it and to have a more purposeful understanding of it. My making their own discoveries, figuring out the problems on their own (rather than being taught one method of how to do it), math becomes inherently more exciting.
Zahra and Noah got math worksheets today. And they’ll get math worksheets tomorrow. But I’m on it. I think those worksheet days are numbered. I can’t help but be excited about it. In the meantime, here are some other things my kids have been doing to develop their math, logic and reasoning skills:
Noah and I “mummified” an apple slice and also kept another apple slice, au naturel. Before we opened them three weeks later, we took a shot at guessing what they would look like and why. We then had to apply both logic and emotion to our argument with Saïd about why we would not be reusing the salt and baking soda from this experiment.
Leila’s all about those first hundred numbers in French. We counted them out in golden beads and plastic animals and grouped them into sets of ten. Then I made a number with wooden cards and asked her to find which animal it corresponded to. (All this while running a fever, no less.)
Zahra used her deduction skills to guess the ending of this book.
We played a fun game with Cuisenaire rods. One person chose three rods and hid them behind his or her back. Another person had to figure out which three they were. They had to make their guesses in groups of three (i.e., I think you have the green one, the brown one and the orange one), and they were answered with, “You have two right.” (Or one, etc.) For added difficulty, we played with Leila (who sometimes forgot which three colours she had chosen).
We also played Clue. We have the DVD version, recommended for ages 10+. I thought Noah would struggle with it…and he did, but he didn’t give up. For a self-taught beginner reader (in English), that’s pretty impressive.
We tried to use our logic and reasoning skills to understand this piece of contemporary art…but failed. Good thing Boaler also mentions in her talk that failure fires off more synapses in the brain than success! We’re learning.