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She talks in maths, she buzzes like a fridge

February 13, 2010

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.

  1. Blair permalink
    March 31, 2010 11:30 am

    I glad you made your peace with math. I on the other hand am not quite ready.

    You see math and are were the best of friends until grade 12. We got each other, and even though most people could not understand how we saw eye to eye on answers, I always got them. I did math my own way, and to be honest it was a little bit more round about than the conventional straight forward approaches taught. And until grade 12 this was acceptable, if not warned against.

    Math to me was a process to get an answer. does it really matter how I got there? I often saw English the same way. Do you understand what I am trying to communicate? Yes? OK why does it matter that my sentence is “awkward”.

    I digress…you see in grade 12 not only did showing how I got there using “their” conformed way of thinking was important, but it was essential. And then I met math algebra side…

    And to this day, how a type of math that employs the same mechanics as computer programming, something I am able to do well at a professional level even to this day, was able to knock me on my ass so flatly, and got me so far behind I was given the token 50 at the end of the year which I clearly did not earn, astonishes me.

    I won friggin math awards! But now we don’t talk…like an awkward silence between two former friends that haven’t spoken in years over a dispute.

    I’ve only held 2 grudges in my entire life, and one is against math. I wish it well as I know it serves many people well.

    But some things one just can’t forget.

  2. April 1, 2010 8:39 pm

    How sad… You spend all those years thinking you know math really well, and then BAM! It turns on you. :)

    I have to ask, though – what were your teachers like? I firmly believe that the main reason I couldn’t “get” math in high school was because my teachers didn’t know how to explain it to me.

    • Blair permalink
      April 13, 2010 11:40 am

      my early years teachers were good, but my high school math teachers not so much. In fact my grade 11 teacher couldn’t give a rats ass about anything. Grade 12 teach was good, he really was, which made it that much harder, since he is the one that gave me the 50. I never once ever had to have a teacher slow down for me, but I needed him to, but I was too embarrassed to ask. It was the first in a long line of “I used to be good at thats”

      • April 20, 2010 10:18 pm

        Well, you know what, I understand algebra a whole lot better after working with this student for two years. Maybe one day I will try to teach it to you, and you and math can forgive each other. :)

  3. **Jayme permalink
    January 14, 2011 1:04 pm

    My biggest musical break through came to me when I realized that I constantly counted!

    Part of my constant thought pattern involved counting rhythms and I don’t know how long I have done it.

    I also hated math in school because I am pretty sure that is what I was told to do! I also was more of the artsy type and there fore thought that it was a given that math was not my forte!

    However, as I uncovered the passionate side of myself, linked to music and food, I began to realize how hopelessly lost I would be with out the order and freedom of math.

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