“Many kids either don’t understand the meaning of the math or won’t until much later, when they have already been branded as poor in math,” writes software developer Ana Redmond.
Editor’s note: A version of this essay was originally published on Medium. It has been edited for length and clarity. If you have a story you’d like to share about education, you can read more about how to submit a guest essay for Education Lab here.
I organize a community group of entrepreneurs who are building educational technology companies in Seattle. We meet periodically to share, help and support each other. At one such meeting, a mom, who also runs an after-school center for kids, told me that when her daughter was behind in math, she enrolled her in a program where kids have to fill out work sheets in a strict progression.
Excited to see that her daughter could now solve “3+6” on the work sheets, the mother then gave her daughter a situational problem as they were in the car:
“There are six cars in this parking lot, and three on the road. How many in total?” she asked.
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“I don’t know,” the daughter answered.
The mom eventually realized that her very smart daughter had memorized the math symbols and answers on the work sheets without understanding their meaning at all.
I keep hearing similar stories from other moms. One mother became so frustrated trying to get her son to perform well on math speed drills for school tests, she started home-schooling him. Another told me that teaching her daughter math facts is like the plot of “Groundhog Day.” (In the movie, the protagonist is caught in a time loop, repeating the same day over and over again.) Her daughter memorizes answers to math problems, and then the next day they start with the same math facts all over again when she forgets them.
As a software developer, I recognize the irony of forcing our children to learn math facts. I use math constantly, and even I can’t remember them. The important part of math is understanding how to represent a real world problem using mathematical symbols. How math connects to everyday things. What math symbols mean.
So why do we keep teaching math facts (knowing) instead of math concepts (understanding)? When will we all stop reliving math’s Groundhog Day?
Six years ago, when my daughter was struggling in math in kindergarten, I built her games that explained concepts simply. She understood the meaning of the symbols by solving simulated problems. After that, the memorization happened automatically. If she forgot the math fact, as she sometimes did, she just went back to basic principle to figure it out again.
But many kids either don’t understand the meaning of the math or won’t until much later, when they have already been branded as poor in math.
“The irony of the emphasis on speed is that some of our world’s leading mathematicians are not fast at math,” Stanford math professor Jo Boaler wrote in the Scientific American. Laurent Schwartz — who won one of math’s highest awards, the Fields Medal, in 1950 — wrote in his autobiography that he was a slow thinker in math who believed he was “stupid” until he realized that “what is important is to deeply understand things and their relations to each other. This is where intelligence lies. The fact of being quick or slow isn’t really relevant.”
Math is not computation. Math is patterns and symbols that have meaning. Math is a means of communicating complex ideas.
That’s the math I taught my daughter with the games I built for her. She developed a strong foundation in math along with her confidence in her ability to figure it out. Now, she is one of the best math students in her 6th-grade class.
As Albert Einstein famously said: “Any fool can know, the point is to understand.”