124. Mathematics

Mathematics is a language and way of thinking that intimidates many people. Whether you’re in second grade trying to figure out how to deal with the subtraction of two-digit numbers, or in high school or college trying to figure out what calculus is all about, it can be hard because it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with anything you’ve ever experienced. In second grade, you probably don’t care that much about who has more apples, and later on, you probably won’t be building a bridge and doing whatever calculus is involved in that. I haven’t taken calculus yet, and so far, I’ve managed to survive. I suspect that calculus wouldn’t have helped me with any major problems I’ve had.
I think my attitude toward calculus and other people’s attitudes toward other kinds of math are partly the results of teaching that was done by teachers who either didn’t like math or were so into it that they had forgotten the first steps. The first steps, for most people, have to be grounded in meaningful experience. Luckily, children like to play games, and there are thousands of games that involve mathematical thinking. And the average person’s life is full of math.
Calculators don’t do what I consider math; they only do arithmetic. Teachers in schools traditionally give children papers and have the children write numbers on the papers. For
many children, math is what you have to do if you want to go out to recess. I believe that math has more to do with recess than with the rows of addition and subtraction problems many children have to do.
If you’re out at recess, and you have a prime number of children who want to play soccer (and you want several teams) or an odd number (and you want two teams), there’s no way to make equal teams. If you do play soccer, and you want to make sure the goalie stays in Goalie Land, you have to figure out some boundaries. If recess is twenty minutes, how do you separate your game into four quarters? Two halves? Probably, you won’t need to do that, but if you do, can you estimate, or must you use a watch? If your watch doesn’t have a timer, can you figure out how to tell when ten minutes are up? Math is everywhere; you can’t get away from it.
But there’s something about the way math is often presented that makes it seem as though it’s on a par with taking out the garbage. Just something you gotta do. I think it’s too easy to blame individual teachers. Teachers learned math in our schools, and many inherited what our schools had to offer, including negative attitudes toward math. But I’ve seen math lessons that were fun for all the children involved, and were still lessons. It can be done.

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