Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Adding Up To A Promising Tomorrow

What’s At Stake In Your Everyday Math Class

Everything changed today. As I drove away from home, I had that feeling that we were on the brink of something really big and there's no going back. See, about two weeks ago my wife and I made the very, very tough decision to educate our boys at home this year, and so now Dad, the math major, has a math date with the little dudes at 7:45 at the dining room table every morning.

Today was the first day of school. Just like that I’m back in the educational scene again, but this time I’m on the teacher’s side of the desk for the first time since I left teaching to become a youth pastor back in 1997.

We don't know how long we're going to keep this educational arrangement. We’re taking it one step at a time. Might be just this year; might be quite a while. Our expectation is that we’ll keep it this way until all five of our children complete 8th grade. That’s a long time. Devin is 8 years away from high school, but Julia Grace won’t be there for 13-14 years. And like I said, that is a looong time.

And so as I drove away from home, I had the distinct feeling that we were talking about an arrangement that could last for quite a while. My mind immediately zoomed out into panoramic, big picture mode. My thoughts raced ahead several years to some future day when we’ll have spent literally thousands of hours on math alone. Five days a week, nine months a year, for eight long years, we’ll meet, and we’ll work over some mathematical concept. What do I want my little dudes to take away from all this?

A gazillion ideas came to answer the question I posed to myself. Two of them—two reasons for all this expenditure of time, money, and mental energy—caught my attention and dominated my thoughts for the rest of my drive to the office. I’ll treat one in this post and the other in the next (which is when I’ll finally get to the importance of language, which I promised I’d write about in my last post ages and ages ago…)

Math is worth the effort, not so much because of what it puts in our mind, but because of what it does to our mind. In my opinion, math is less about content and more about effect.

Here’s what I mean. When we learn that 1 + 1 = 2, we are given an indispensable element of a successful future in math. It’s also a relatively helpful bit of knowledge for everyday life.

But when we nail down this little 1st grade mathematical concept, there are much bigger things at work in our brain. We’re actually learning far more than the mere sum of 1 and 1. For example, learning that 1 plus 1 equals 2 also teaches us:

  • to assume the existence of universals and absolutes. No one proposes that 1 + 1 can be whatever you’d like it to be. It’s always 2 for every person everywhere.
  • to rely on logic rather than observation or intuition as the standard of truth. A child’s intuition might lead him/her to believe that 1 + 1 = 1, following the pattern of ones in the left half of the equation; but logic demonstrates that things are not always as they appear.
  • to follow deliberate, objective steps in moving toward a conclusion. Math forces us to follow rules of thought, sometimes self-consciously, thus sharpening our ability to think clearly and properly.
  • to think creatively in solving problems we don’t remember seeing before. The problem-solving skills we develop in math class have far broader effects than just getting 4 credits toward a high school diploma.
  • to work with symbols, thus enhancing our ability to handle abstraction. The black marks on the page that appear to us as 1 + 1 = 2 are actually universal symbols that we use to represent a specific proposition: any 1 thing coupled with any other 1 thing nets you 2 things.
I suppose a real mathematician could go on and on with the list. My point is this: math does something to our mind. All those multiplication tables in 4th grade and word problems in 7th grade and geometric proofs in 10th grade actually shape our brain to work in certain ways. They are like the forms that construction workers put in place when they pour concrete, getting our mind ready to handle abstract, propositional thought with accuracy and fluency. Years and years of math ready us for a future of careful, productive cognition in every other discipline: theology, ethics, history, the languages, the arts, all of them.

So here we are, with thousands of hours of math before us. And what do I see? As a math teacher, I see myself shaping little brains, training ready minds, raising young thinkers… and wearing out a whole lot of pencil lead and erasers along the way!

Got a math class this semester? Great! Need some motivation? How about this: working hard at math gets you a thousand intellectual benefits later in life.

All this time you’ve been complaining about that confusing, irritating y = mx + b stuff… all the fears that it might keep you from a high SAT, a top-notch college, and that great career… Actually, the exact opposite is true! The way I see it, today’s Slope-Intercept Form is tomorrow’s irrefutable argument or well-reasoned decision or creative solution!

So there you have it. Math: today’s ticket to a promising tomorrow!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Always good to figure out where each step affects the whole journey. Thank you.