She talks in maths, she buzzes like a fridge
You’d think math would be the last topic to come up on this blog. Surely, in all the world, there is nothing more black-and-white than math, is there? Well, I’m not so sure anymore.
I gave up on math class after Grade 10. In the taxonomy of public school, I was clearly an artsy-languagy person and not a math geek at all. For years I considered my left cerebral hemisphere to be deficient. I told people things like, “I don’t have a math brain” and “Numbers make me go cross-eyed”. This was despite the fact that I could often make seemingly random, surprisingly intuitive guesses as to what, say, 19% of 267 might be. And I could do long division in my head, if I turned off all the lights and concentrated really hard.
Last year, I was asked to work as an educational aide for a student in a wheelchair. Due to his physical limitations, he has to work in a separate classroom from his peers; therefore, my role ended up being more that of a teacher than an aide. So I bet you can guess what subject he was studying: math. That’s right – I, whose last academic math experience had taken place nearly two decades before and had involved a grade in the low fifties, was being asked to teach math.
I had had previous experience teaching subjects I knew nothing about (hello, Grade 9 geography?), and, as any teacher will tell you, had discovered that teaching something is often the best way to learn it. So I decided to give it a try. And indeed, an amazing, wonderful thing happened: I started to get math. It wasn’t just a matter of finally being able to remember rules and formulas or solve equations. I started to understand what it all meant, how things related to each other, how one idea could lead to another. I started to get a tiny little inkling of what those annoying mathy types mean when they say that everything in the world can be described in mathematical terms.
Then, while Googling for a better way to explain exponents to my student, I stumbled across this site, which eventually led me to this wonderful piece of exposition on the subject of math education.
If I had to design a mechanism for the express purpose of destroying a child’s natural curiosity and love of pattern-making, I couldn’t possibly do as good a job as is currently being done— I simply wouldn’t have the imagination to come up with the kind of senseless, soulcrushing ideas that constitute contemporary mathematics education.
[…] The fact is that there is nothing as dreamy and poetic, nothing as radical, subversive, and psychedelic, as mathematics. It is every bit as mind blowing as cosmology or physics (mathematicians conceived of black holes long before astronomers actually found any), and allows more freedom of expression than poetry, art, or music (which depend heavily on properties of the physical universe). Mathematics is the purest of the arts, as well as the most misunderstood.
Revelation! Math is also part of the grey area! There are different ways to understand it, different ways to think about it and approach it and teach it. In that sense, it is not entirely black-and-white. This whole notion inspires me to no end. It also soothes my inner tenth-grader, who always felt inadequate, and yet believed she really could figure it out someday, if only she could find the right teacher.