Navigating that pre-mathless world…

My last post prompted this question from a reader:

…I am half way through the Mathematician’s Lament and am totally, utterly passionately sold. But…now what? I’m not a mathematician and fall into the “duh” populace of math paralysis. Who has a curriculum, a study guide, activities prepared to those of us who want to give this gift of wonder to our kids and allow the +,-, X,/ come later, and and naturally? I don’t know where to begin or what to show. I wouldn’t have known the triange in the rectangle thing if I hadn’t just read it in the book. So where do we find sources? (I intend to track down the author and ask him the same).:)

Here’s my response:

If you haven’t already, I’d recommend you have a look at Beyond Facts and Flashcards (read more about the book here); whether or not the mathematical content is right for your son where he’s at now, the book may be able you at some ease about your own ability to guide him through what he’ll need in the way of math.

The other thing I often recommend is that people who feel about all this as you do (“the duh populace”) start by looking around to find out what they’ve been using in the way of practical math all along, more or less without disaster, humiliation, or other unfortunate incident.  It’s there!  You’ll likely find out that you’re more savvy and capable than you’ve been led to believe, and that you have more to offer than you think when it comes to passing on useful stuff to your child.

Then when it comes to the other realm that Paul Lockhart’s talking about – the stuff that’s about finding beauty and wonder in shapes and relationships and numbers – you can go exploring.  The thing about mathematics as a pleasurable pursuit is that it didn’t exist until people started talking about what they noticed, and then started creating language for it so they could talk about it and share in the exploration and creation.  So the thing to do if you’re interested in finding out what’s in this realm of mathematical beauty is to go looking for the people who have found it fascinating and then see if there’s overlap of interest and intrigue.  You can Google things like “mathematics and beauty” and “interesting math discoveries.”

You don’t (nor does your child) have to love it, or even care at all about it in order to find your way quite effectively and peacefully through the world!  Sure, that thing about the triangle in the rectangle can be useful in the context of a math class, and can help facilitate the acquisition of subsequent knowledge, but unless it’s inherently interesting how shapes interact with each other, it’s likely to have at most cursory usefulness (and to try to get a kid to dig deep into math when it’s just plain not that intriguing to him or her is to make it more difficult to just learn it to the extent that it may be necessary in the context of preparing for a test or getting through a class; the more we let things be how they are the more smoothly things go).  Like anything else.  I’ve worked on problems like the triangle/rectangle one with kids who are fascinated by it and want to spend scads of time thinking about it, and others who shrug and say things like “Yeah, I guess that’s cool.” I don’t think that’s entirely the fault of the delivery.  I think it’s at least in part attributable to the spectrum of human preference.

The fact that we make a big production about math is not an indication that it’s any more important or essential (and I’m still talking about the big fascinating puzzle math, not the managing finances) as anything else, like art history or needlepoint, things that we’re perfectly fine with taking an interest in or not taking an interest in.  You can go after the interesting math the same way you would anything else, by asking people you know if they know things about it, or know anyone who does, and then asking those people what they read first, or where they started, what they’ve seen online about it that they like, etc.  Some of the stuff you come across will be over your head at first, but some of it won’t, and that’ll be where you start.  If you find it interesting.  If you don’t, then maybe, slowly, you realize that it doesn’t mean anything about you that it’s not interesting to you, just as it doesn’t mean anything about you that you’re not interested in needlepoint or engine repair. And you can choose to keep exploring, or stop!

Thanks for asking the question out loud, and for being willing to venture out beyond what you’ve been taught to believe about math!


One Response

  1. Thanks for your writing. I wrote the book down so I don’t forget it.


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