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!

Me? Non-judgmental?

I got a great and at least partly unfounded compliment the other day.  It came in a coaching session with a young woman who’s considering her career and work options.  We were talking about things she’s been successful at and enjoyed in her life.  “You’re so non-judgmental,” she said.  I laughed, thinking of all the many ways in which I am not, at all, non-judgmental.  But what she meant was a kind of non-judgmentalness that I’ve acquired in the course of my life from watching how much better the world works when people are doing work they’re suited to, and what a disaster it is to try to pretend that there are good, respectable jobs, and then jobs a person should be ashamed of, or feel like a disappointment for having chosen or resorted to.

I once watched a guy riding on the back of a trash truck spin a sidewalk can liner through the air in an arc that shimmied it perfectly into place in its cage on the sidewalk, with a giant grin on his face; exuding a vitality that defied the suggestion of having settled for manual labor.  He leapt on and off the running board of the truck as it made its way along the street.  And, at least then, every time he showed up to leap and bound his way through his route, the city put money, good money, in his bank account.  It’s possible that he’d have been happier with some other job that might draw higher esteem, but I very much doubt it. He looked at home where he was.  I’ve seen the same vitality on carpenters, baristas, snowplow operators, restaurant hostesses, bus drivers, secretaries, farmhands.   And I’ve seen the profound lack of that vitality in many who hold the kind of jobs we think we’re supposed to want and obtain.

I’ve heard people say that it’s not a good idea to try to get everyone to go to college because someone has to serve the food and pick up the trash.  That may be true, but it’s not a good reason not to encourage anyone who would benefit to study or pursue anything they’re inspired to.  Instead I think we’d do well to notice and acknowledge things like this: for some people, hopping in and out of a truck is the perfect job, and sitting at a desk would be excruciating and detrimental.  For others, a life spent in front of a computer is heavenly.  For others, any one task or set of tasks repeated day after day would be tiresome.  And for others, the same would be comforting and preferable.

There’s plenty of preference and suitability to go around.  And not only does it get work done when we let all of it be just as important and worthy as anything else, people get to live more satisfying, vibrant lives when they’re able to pursue what makes sense for them to pursue, what suits them.  It may seem impossible to succeed this way, because there are salary discrepancies between various lines of work, and massive cutbacks in others, and all manner of other obstacles.  We can’t, in the short term, control most or even any of that, and it’s true that it has an impact.  But these realities may be all the more reason to empower people to go after their best most suitable lives.  If we remove the stigmas attached to different kinds of work so that we don’t narrow the options of young people who are setting out into the world to figure out how to earn a living in a tumultuous economic climate, we set them up to find access to their deepest determination and commitment. Even the jobs that have always seemed secure are not necessarily, and so if a person is fortunate enough to have the support they need to never give up at finding the right match for their capacities, to go after that match with the full force of themselves, won’t they be much more likely to stay afloat, and even to find a niche for themselves that can lead to distinction and success?

So yes, I suppose I am non-judgmental, in this particular way.  I didn’t come this way, though.  I had to learn it by watching what’s actually happening around me, what’s actually making people thrive against the backdrop of topsy-turvy times.  It’s not what it used to be; it’s not what most of us were raised to believe it would be.  But it’s here.

Diversity of preference

The other day I wrote about inquiring into kids’ resistance in a new way. Here are some follow-up thoughts about why we tend to stay in a rut about how we think about what kids will and won’t do.

We seem convinced that the reason kids don’t want to do the things they don’t want to do is that no one wants to do those things, and therefore the only way to get them done is to force them.  But very often it turns out that if we’re willing to hear what kids are actually objecting to, we’ll find that it’s not that they’re summarily opposed to studying, or summarily opposed to helping, or summarily opposed to anything we ask, but rather that particular tasks don’t suit them.  Not because they’re spoiled and they’re turning up their noses.  Because different people are compatible with different tasks and pursuits.

Words like “chore” are subjectively assigned.  There are tasks that tend to get thrown under the heading of chore which to many people do not feel like chores.  And then there are other tasks that do feel like chores to those people.  Likewise, some people are entirely at ease, happy, even, in professions that others would wince at the thought of.  I’ve met lots of people who love reading, love writing, love things that keep them immersed in stillness and indoor quiet.  And I’ve met just as many who cannot stand to be indoors and still.  They’d rather do most anything (often many things often considered chores) outside.  I’ve seen people in careers we’d call good (usually the white collar ones) who love their work, and get up early every day to be at their offices early so they can get started, and I’ve seen others in the same kind of work counting down the days until their next weekend, until vacation, until retirement.  And there are people in what might often be considered lousy careers who are actually full of vitality; happy to be where they are, and even earning the income they need to support their chosen lifestyles.

So there’s evidence, it seems to me, that it’s misleading to teach children that they just have to suck it up and deal with the things that don’t suit them, the things that make them scrunch up their faces, and make excuses, and stall.  Teaching them to just submit to the you-just-have-to ethic perpetuates our commitment to embedded suffering.  And it doesn’t even really seem to serve anyone.  It sometimes gets chores and math done, but it doesn’t instill any of the pride, satisfaction, or long-term commitment to excellence that we say we intend to instill with our teaching.  And very often, it doesn’t actually get the chores and math done.  Or it gets them done in such a way that they have to be redone.  And always, the whole process is exhausting for the adults involved.  I’m not talking about relieving kids of responsibility, or somehow protecting them from it at the expense of adults.  I’m talking about striving for a collaboration between kids and parents which can benefit both.  Just as we think kids just have to do whatever we tell them, whatever we think they should, we think we just have to tolerate the exhausting battles generated by that approach.  We think that it’s just a necessary part of raising and shepherding children through life.  But it’s not.  We don’t have to keep engaging in this battle with kids day in and day out.  And if we let it go, think how much less tired we’ll be, how much energy we’ll save.  How much energy we’ll have for actually being with, supporting, and enjoying kids.

What if there actually exists enough diversity of preference, motivation, and need to get everything done that needs to get done?  What if we don’t actually have to force people to do things that make them miserable?  What might happen if we let go of our conceptions of good work and lousy work, hard work and easy work, chores and not chores, work and play?  I’m willing to bet we’ll get a lot more done, with a lot less struggle, strain, resistance, fatigue. And have a much better time in the course of it.

[It bears mentioning that in any given household on any given day, there is of course a reasonable chance that multiple children will have equal distaste for particular chores.  I’m not suggesting that negotiation and collective agreement aren’t necessary for the operation of families and other small communities. Only that a great deal more diversity of preference exists than we tend to acknowledge and make room for.  When the diversity of preference is acknowledged, it makes the negotiation a lot easier. (And further, in many cases the bickering over particular household chores could be eliminated by the recognition of strengths and preferences.  Many disagreements are born of competition and questions of fairness rather than actual preference; I’ve seen households in which tasks have been successfully distributed such that each family member is mostly if not entirely unopposed to his or her chore load.)]