I know this statement is shocking. Some of you may feel that I have announced the end of the civilization as we know it. How in the world will people learn math without the latest and greatest math textbook. The answer is simple. The same way people have always learned math prior to the modern education system, by doing math as they go about their everyday lives. You may ask “Is that possible?” “Would it work?” I believe so. It’s the reason I made this statement when I was asked if my new book, “Math is Child’s Play” was going to be a Math Textbook. But in all fairness, let’s look at both sides, school math versus everyday math.
First let’s look at school math. I have been studying of late the topic of Math Anxiety. Increasing number of people profess to hate math, to be ‘no good at math,’ to be anxious about doing basic math. These same people were taught math in our public schools. When did this situation of math anxiety start? Who knows for sure? But what’s significant is that it’s increasing, not decreasing. It’s increasing despite the modern education system, despite New Math and the latest teaching methods, despite all the money and energy that has been put towards the problem. Just for the record, I found a book “Mathematics; A Human Endeavor” by Harold R. Jacobs copyrighted in 1970 which in its preface the author mentions the failure of New Math in the schools. A book from 1964, titled “Mathematics for Elementary Teachers” by Ralph Crouch and George Baldwin which was written to teach math to elementary teacher who found themselves expected to teach math although they had no training in math.
Marilyn Burns, a well known math expert, has been addresses math anxiety since 1970 with her first book, “I Hate Mathematics” right through to her more current book, “Math; Facing an American Phobia” 1998. The latter book speaks to math anxiety as a growing phenomenon. And more recently “Math for the Anxious” by Rosanne Proga, copyrighted 2005 also is very clear about math anxiety and its causes. Of course, all this math anxiety is good; at least it is for the math textbook industry. Math anxiety sells math textbooks. Parents are concerned that their children learn math better than they did. Teachers are calling for a better way to teach math. This is great news for the math textbook companies. For you and me, this is bad news.
So let’s look at the other side. Is it possible for people to learn math in everyday life; running their business or household, doing projects, etc.? Is this possible? I believe it is and it is already happening without anyone being aware of it. My daughter professed to hate math, yet she is doing math everyday on Neopets. When I asked her about it, she said that it wasn’t real math. So what kind of math was it? I think she meant that it wasn’t ‘school math.’ I met an airline pilot who went into great details about the calculations she did in her head in order to fly the plane. Later she professed that she hated math in school. She wasn’t ‘good at it.’ She wasn’t even capable of balancing her own checkbook. When I pointed out that the calculation she did to fly the plane was math, she was adamant that it wasn’t because she wasn’t any good at math in school. She said “It’s just a formula that I plug numbers into.” Marilyn Burn relates a similar story about an interior decorator who could price out the cost for a complete room, but also felt that she wasn’t any good at math. These are people who couldn’t do ‘school math’ but are doing the math that their everyday lives demand of them. They probably learned this math on the job; hence they don’t relate it to school math.
Math is best learned in the real world, with real life situations. It may start with counting out the cookies your mother gives you. Later you start comparing the number you got with the number your brother got. You quickly learn to calculate the he got ‘how many’ more than you did, so that your complaint can be accurate. Next, you are watching Mom slice up the pie or cake. You quickly calculate how many pieces each person can have, that is until Mom steps in and tells you how many you can really have. Then you calculate how many you can have tomorrow with all those guests gone. This is a simple real life scenario, but how many math concepts did I cover here. These skills grow with your children. How many of you have watched your older children go through their Halloween candy. My child sorts and counts to evaluate how she did. Halloween is also a great time for teaching about taxes. Parents need to take their share of the sweet earnings, and not just of the candy the child doesn’t like. Remember, Uncle Sam takes his cut off the top before you ever see a dime.
Playing is a great way to learn math. I like miniature golf and billiards for learning about angles and force. Of course this may sound like Physics, Newton’s Law of Relativity. And it is, but there is also no better way to learn geometry and algebra than with a practical application. What could be more practical than learning as you play? Wow, here’s another real life example for learning math. I like playing games. You name it; board games, card games, strategy games. If it challenges me and tests my intellect and problem solving capabilities, I like it. Games like Nim, checkers, chess, mancala, Stratego, Battleship, Risk, etc. help develop logic sequences and strategy. Games like Uno, Skip-bo, Set, Rummikub helps children develop their ability to see patterns. Games like cribbage, gin rummy, Scrabble actually help children practice addition and multiplication.
But enough with the games, let’s talk some serious stuff. If you want to learn math, do a project like decorating a room. Do the whole works from calculating the paint or wallpaper, to calculating the material and sewing the drapes, to ordering and positioning the furniture. Design a new cabinet layout for your kitchen, including calculating cabinet dimensions, appliance positioning and project costs. Try building something like a drop desk or a play ground swing set, or a go-cart. How about doing a baking or sewing/quilting project? Do all the preparations for a dinner party, including the planning, shopping, seating arrangement, cooking, etc. Try paper trading some stock and track them for a year. Start an eBay business. Wow! Wouldn’t that be something, having your child’s math project turn into a home-based business that pays for your child’s college education? It’s possible and it’s real life.
When it comes to learning math, everyday life has plenty of opportunities and the learning is natural, not forced. On the other hand, the math anxiety problem is rooted in our modern education system. The problem lies with having non-math experts teaching math as if they were experts. The problem lies with having math textbooks that present math in an artificial and rigid manner. As much as I liked Marilyn Burns book, “Math; Facing an American Phobia,” I think she missed the correct conclusion of the situation. Ms. Burns is still trying to ‘fix’ the system. It is obvious to me that it is time to throw the system out and go back to learning math in everyday life. Hence I stand by my statement “The Last Thing the World Needs Is Another Math Textbook.”