The heading of the article reads “Learning to Love Math.” My pulse quickens for a moment. I like the sound of this. From personal experience, I know that it is possible to learn to love math. When I was 8, and 9, and 10 years old I’d have told you I hated it. Then I got the hang of it (or maybe something changed about the way it was offered, or even what was offered as it), and I started to like it. Later still, it became something I would think about voluntarily, something to do for fun. And now sometimes I get to share my love of it with other people, and then it’s fun again, and more.
So when I came across this article about learning to love it, I read on with excitement. But then I got to this part, explaining a professor’s mission in rethinking math education: “We need to teach kids to love math, not just to get through math.”
While I agree entirely that it’s better for everyone if we come from an intention of inspiring love, rather than settling for the survival of “getting through,” the use of the word “need” left me a bit disappointed.
Every time we decide that we have to teach someone to love something (reading is another place we demand this of ourselves), we make the work of sharing knowledge and skill more difficult for ourselves and the task of receiving it more difficult for those with whom we intend to share it. To show kids how something like math can be loveable is indeed more effective than just shoving boring-ified things down their throats. Much more effective.
But to demand of ourselves that we get every person to love one thing is to doom ourselves to failure. It’s just not possible. People are not like that. We’re not all going to love the same things. And further, humans (children included) are more available for learning when we don’t feel as though we have to take on someone else’s experience of the content, or someone else’s expectation of how it should seem, feel, be appreciated or used.
And we don’t have to love things in order to use them for what we’ll need them for. With the same commitment (to revealing the beauty of math and other potentially useful and loveable things), we could say things like “If we expect kids to be able to understand and use math, we should stop turning it into something that feels disconnected and arbitrary.” I know that’s probably what the quoted professor mostly meant.
But the words matter, and our longstanding habit of using the insistent language of “have-to” when we talk about young people and education is not without cost. It’s possible to use language about math and other realms that won’t force us to face off with the diversity of human preference. We can choose words that make room for us to draw the potential appeal forth from the numbers (or the books or the music or the carpentry), words that will let us look for ways to make things feel more humane, attractive, and accessible without insisting that those things occur the same way for everyone.