Ok, enough about dogs, now let’s talk about math?

Apropos creatures with different learning/communication styles:

Lately, Dave has been tutoring math at the local high school (in fact, the very high school he once attended), normally helping students with geometry and early algebra – the type of stuff we’re all devastated to discover we need to relearn for the GREs. (Nailed it! Four years ago! Probably forgot it all again! Damn!)

Yesterday, however, his regular students didn’t show up, so he was a catch-all tutor, helping anyone who came by. One of these students turned out to need help with Algebra II homework. It was, Dave said, the oddly familiar experience of meeting up with math that doesn’t apply to his everyday life but has to be done anyway. This started a conversation about whether there is a better way to teach math to kids.

Now, keep in mind that when I say “better,” I am starting with almost zero understanding of math pedagogy. But my experience of math class was a lot like Dave’s description: I never loved it, but I was ok at it, and once I hit Algebra II I stopped being able to see any reason for me to remain engaged. I can even remember asking my math teacher (in a particularly smart-ass moment, it must be said): “Why do I need to know this? When in my life will I use it?” To which he replied, disappointingly: “Well, maybe you would if you were a civil engineer.”

No disrespect is intended to civil engineers. The reason this answer felt (& still feels) like a failure to me is that I had no idea what civil engineers did, what sorts of problems they solved or larger concepts they engaged with, and my math teacher didn’t offer any of that information. So I rolled my eyes and went back to doing worksheets, then effectively stopped taking math classes my senior year of high school. (I took some physics-for-poets classes in college, but no more straight math.)

So I wonder: why do math classes completely elide explanations of why math is interesting? There seems to be an assumption that you’ll either like math/be a math prodigy, or you won’t, and in either case the only solution is to present math straight & teach it by rote repetition. But there are lots of imaginative, intelligent students who, like me, might be more inclined to stick with math if some effort was made to show them how to engage with it creatively. Much like how, in physics, the least interesting thing is the speed with which a ball rolls down an inclined plane. But we’re taught about that long before we’re introduced to the idea that physicists are trying to explain the universe and its structures, or all of reality.

Obviously, students need to be taught the basics too. But there must be some way to better motivate students to do the repetitive tasks needed to pick up math skills – a bigger picture they could be working towards.

Basically what I’m saying is: I’m mad that no one tried harder to teach me about math, however hard they tried to teach me math. And I’m curious what other people think about this, and if you all have thoughts you might share on why math is taught the way it is (or could point to schools where it’s taught differently, meeting with either success or failure.)

In other news: these domestic tableaus by artist Julia Callon, taken from fictive scenes, are really interesting.