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How to Fall in Love with Math…Again

A few posts back I shared an article titled: “How to Fall in Love with Math.” As I’ve stated many times, I am quite passionate about the need to focus on affective learning in mathematics. I have since come across a few additional articles in the same vein and I thought I would share them here with a few brief quotes.

The first article is titled “Finding the Beauty in Math.” Here are some interesting quotes:

Cornell Math Professor and New York Times columnist Steven Strogatz, author of The Joy of x, said much of middle and high school math curriculum (which covers not basic arithmetic, but higher math) doesn’t appeal to students’ hearts, instead offering answers to questions that kids would never ask — which he calls “the definition of boredom.”

“When people want to learn about music, they’ve reacted to it, they love it and naturally want to learn more about it. They have their own questions,” Strogatz said. When introducing higher math to a group of curious young students, he suggests first “showing them math’s greatest hits” and allowing them to become fascinated; students then naturally come up with their own questions. Suri was on the right track, Strogatz said, when he suggested students learn something like the origin of numbers — because the first step is falling in love with the mathematical ideas behind the formulas and procedures.

Strogatz acknowledges that grasping the concepts of higher math can pave the way to many wonderful careers — many in the popular and highly needed STEM fields. But rationalizing to students that math improves reasoning skills or that “you’ll need it in the real world” are two strategies doomed to fail, he said, because they not-so-subtly suggest that math isn’t worth learning for its own sake, but parallels something more akin to “mental push-ups.”

“Have you ever asked why you need music?” Strogatz said. “You don’t need music. It’s nice to know about music. Why do you need to look at Picasso?” Perhaps when presented first as the story of how the universe works, math can become beautiful.

The article also states that “Grabbing students’ hearts, however, is only the first step to falling in love with math.” I’m just glad someone recognizes that grabbing hearts (as opposed to minds) is actually THE first step. Much of math education today seems to ignore this route.

A second article (which is actually referenced in the one above) is titled “How Do You Spark a Love of Math in Kids?” After discussing improving student self-efficacy the author goes on to state:

A second element critical to switching students onto math is the value they attach to the subject. Parents and teachers can foster the sense that math is an important and relevant body of knowledge by demonstrating the usefulness of math in the real world, and by making themselves positive role models for valuing math. In fact, parents’ own interest in math is another important component Martin and his coauthors identified.

I both agree and disagree with this comment. I agree that parents (and teachers of other subjects) need to be positive math role models for students. Too often I’ll have conversations with parents who want their child to do well in math class but they have no idea how to help them because they “were never very good at math” or simply they “aren’t a math person.” Comments like this to irreparable harm to the psyche of our math students. I disagree with the quote in that it outright contradicts the ideas brought up by Strogatz above. Namely that

Rationalizing to students that math improves reasoning skills or that “you’ll need it in the real world” are two strategies doomed to fail, he said, because they not-so-subtly suggest that math isn’t worth learning for its own sake, but parallels something more akin to “mental push-ups.”

To read more about how math is worth learning for its own sake, and not simply its utility I suggest my post on Mathematical Affections.

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