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Learning to Love Math

When I was nearly four years old, my father received his PhD in mathematics from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and since that time he has been a professor of mathematics at Brigham Young University. On June 30th, 1995, he retired, was granted emeritus status for the maximum three years, and then continued to teach without remuneration which he does to this very day. In October of 2005, he was given the Honorary Alumni Award at BYU’s homecoming festivities in honor of his contribution to the university. He may have retired his position, but not his love of numbers and formulae and sharing it with students.

All my life I enjoyed math and performed well in my classes; I guess it’s in my blood. Most of my girlfriends hated it or, at least, thought I was nuts to more than tolerate the subject. For years I alternated between feeling weird and feeling smart. (If you care to categorize me, I now prefer the latter!)

Just months after my eldest child, Jessica, was born I happened upon an article in Parents magazine titled “Math Stinks!” I do not recall the author or many specifics, but I do vividly remember being enthralled by the content. It explained this dichotomy and it began a whole new way of thinking about raising my daughter (which has subsequently become raising four daughters and two sons). [I have since located the author of Math Stinks! and been given permission to republish it.]

Although young girls generally score better on math tests than do boys, as they get closer to adolescence they tend to fall farther and farther behind. This discomfort, disinterest, or just plain difficulty (technically called “math anxiety,” and also seen in boys) is often reinforced by parents (especially mothers) making comments to their children (especially daughters) such as, “Well, I never liked math either,” or “I never was any good at math,” or “Well, we Smiths just don’t seem to have mathematical minds.”

Statements like these imply that it’s perfectly normal and acceptable for a child not to excel in math. They also seem to hint toward feelings of, “Well, I’m no good at math and I’ve done just fine without it. You will too.” Never have I met a parent who would say to a child, “Well, I never liked reading either,” or “I was never any good at thinking myself,” or even, “Well, we Smiths just don’t seem to have historical minds.” So why is it acceptable to promote math illiteracy to our kids when we would never promote other illiteracy?

In the early 1990’s, my sister, Nora Hess, received her master’s degree in math education with a thesis titled “Elementary School Teachers, Scientists, and the Two Cultures of Mathematics.” It clearly showed that elementary teachers who introduce many children to math are often people who have never enjoyed the subject. Many tend to see math as a magical set of rules to be memorized and regurgitated, rather than a set of tools for problem solving.

My husband, who has PhD in electrical engineering, and I have often discussed encouraging our children especially our daughters in math and science. We have seen this as a way to leave as many future options open as possible. We have noticed how many educational and career opportunities are unavailable to those who cannot or will not take advanced mathematical courses. It has seemed that many of the “traditional female” fields are simply the subset that do and do not require advanced math.

My theory about math avoidance was backed up handily when I discovered an article by Lucy Sells titled “Mathematics A Critical Filter.” Ms. Sells’ research showed some amazing facts. In an interview of freshmen entering UC Berkeley, 57% of males had taken four yours of high school math, but a mere 8% of females had taken as much. Without those four years of math, 43% of the males and a whopping 92% of the females could not qualify for many entry-level courses. This disqualified them from ten out of the twelve colleges at the university, and 22 out of 44 majors. Half of their potential career choices were eliminated by their past math avoidance! Math is, in fact, the “critical filter” allowing some to pass and holding others back.

If you, as a parent, have an aversion to math, don’t let it rub off on your children. Do something about it. Go to the library. Search the internet. Read books about math, math anxiety, and math avoidance. Ask for advice from people who actually like math and use it all the time. Ask mathematicians, engineers, physicists, and statisticians for the best ways to learn math. Conversely, don’t readily take mathematical advice from those whose degrees, lives, and jobs do not require the use of higher-level math, and especially not from those who dislike it or have made college or career choices in order to avoid it. Some universities even give workshops that re-teach math to adults who believe that they just cannot do it. You can change your attitude and your skill level for the better and greatly influence your children in the process!

There are methods of teaching mathematics that encourage a love and interest in math, and those which tend to kill the joy. If I could give you one piece of advice, it would be this: Please avoid drill-to- kill, memorize-to-mummify, repetition-without-reason textbooks. Look for courses that teach concepts, principles, guided discovery, problem solving, investigation, alternate solutions, and projects that use real math.

What can you do to bring out a love of math in your kids?

  • It’s OK to count on your fingers, or pebbles or candies or pennies or rods or sticks or blocks, even for advanced students. Use hands-on stuff and always have a manipulative to fall back on. Mess with real stuff first; experiment, discover. The algorithm comes last.
  • Critical thinking exercises are a wonderful way to get kids out of the textbook what-is-the-magic-formula mode. It helps them to see that in real life (just as in real math) there are many ways to approach a problem. Math is creative!
  • Play lots of games that will increase mathematical understanding. Try guessing games like hiding a penny in one of ten numbered bags, and figuring the most efficient way to find it. Look for Set, Quarto, Tangrams, and other pattern recognition games. Play Monopoly and Chess. Do puzzles and brainteasers. These are not just gussied up rote drill and memorization activities. Comprehension is the key.
  • Remember that real math is in real life, not on a page in a text. Never do a math problem without a basis in the real world. Figure out how far the car travels in a second. Decide how to divide two bananas fairly between 5 people. Find how many cans of paint are needed to paint three rooms. Every operation applies to something.
  • Discuss great math concepts for fun. Why don’t things disappear when you keep dividing them in half? What does dividing fractions do? Why does pi go on forever? How tall would a stack of a million dollars be? What really happens when you divide by zero? Why do two negative numbers multiply together to form a positive? Talk about the cool stuff!

All these things are appropriate for elementary school and above. Don’t believe that the great math is only for those at an advanced level. If it were, few of us would retain interest long enough to find out about it.

If you jump into math with enthusiasm, your children can come out winners. Thanks for the head start, Dad!

{ 6 comments… add one }
  • Alison Moore Smith February 6, 2008, 1:32 pm

    FWIW, this was originally written in about 1994. (I’d have to check on that.) It was updated just a bit when posted to the old MM in 2005.

  • Michelle D February 6, 2008, 2:16 pm

    That was a good article. Thanks for the perspective. I am one who doesn’t hate but doesn’t like math… But I have tried to teach my kids appropriate attitudes about learning all subjects.

    Alison, we also have 4 girls and 2 boys. And we have a Jessica.

  • Alison Moore Smith February 6, 2008, 2:49 pm

    Obviously you have an awesome family, Michelle, and great taste in names! :bigsmile:

  • spande2 February 6, 2008, 8:16 pm

    Well, I only have one boy and no Jessica’s among my four girls. But, I’m okay with that. 🙂

    Thank you for the article, Alison. I’m not great at math (as you know) and I can tell you that my college major choices were limited by my lack of proficiency. English is a natural for me, and I love it, so that’s what I majored in. It would have been nice to have other options, but I knew that I couldn’t do anything in science. I took foreign language to get around the math requirements, except for bone-head math, which I had to take. I spent a lot of time in the math lab that semester. 🙁

    Now I’m trying to help my children with math. I have the patience, but not the skill (when we get past fractions, anyway). My husband has the skill, but is a little shy on patience. He is improving. 🙂

    Thanks for the hands-on ideas. We started the younger kids on Calculadder today. They actually had a blast trying to beat the clock. But they might get tired of it, so I’ll use your ideas too. We’ve started having a game day on Fridays. We get out all those wonderful board games that usually sit in the closet collecting dust and play them all day. It’s been fun and educational.

  • Ray February 6, 2008, 8:57 pm

    Try to find First in Math and Riverdeep Math. I’m not sure if they are available yet to individual purchasers, but they are phenomenal at what they do. First in Math is more of a fun drill program, while Riverdeep Math does a fabulous job of visualizing and explaining the concepts behind the formulas. It is the Riverdeep instruction about the Pythagorean Theory that I described in the other thread. Literally blew my mind when I saw it for the first time.

  • spande2 February 7, 2008, 11:39 am

    Thanks for the tips, Ray. 😉

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