Math Schmath

by beccaborrelli


Numbers. Jasper Johns. 1967

It’s probably not a huge stretch to imagine I stunk at Math growing up.

My Grandfather was an Algebra/Calc teacher at the nearby community college, and he would patiently listen, as big salty drops of frustration splashed onto my homework:

“I wish I was different…”

“Be careful wishing to be different,” he would say. “If you change one thing… everything changes… and suddenly you’re a completely different person.”

In spite of grandfatherly wisdom, I spent a lot of time in my young life wishing my brain would morph into a more respectable, mathematical variety.

I might have felt this way most of my life… but something happened my first year of teaching Art, that changed my little, (VERY little) mathematical perspective,  forever.

Young and eager to join things, I signed up for my district’s Business Advisory Council. Once a month, teachers, admin, and local business reps met at different schools to discuss collaborations, and ways to support each other. Each month, the host school was in charge of presenting a highlight about the building to community members. My first meeting was at an elementary school- the principal announced two Fourth Graders would be demonstrating the new Math Investigations Curriculum.

A nine year old boy and girl took out two geo boards with rubberbands and began to demonstrate fractions. No pencils. No worksheets. No algorithm.

Right there with my high heels and laptop, sitting next to 30-some professional men and women, a light bulb exploded over my brazen head. At age 25 I understood fractions for the first time in my life.

Really understood.

Sure, I had learned how to write numbers above and below lines. Indeed, I had memorized mindless steps to achieve random combinations of numbers-presumably leading me to the correct answer… if I crossed my fingers and sprinkled salt over my left shoulder.

But here, little children were showing me why it worked. My artsy fartsy, visual brain, that could barely comprehend a digit to save my life, (or pay my credit card bill) was seeing Math in visual form.

What do you mean Brazen? That an artist would learn Math better if it the teacher used… imagery?? It was as if every puzzle piece about fractions I had learned in my life- snapped together in my brain. I almost became teary.

My sister, a pricing analyst for Ohio’s largest insurance company, always used to say that’s why she left Math Ed.

“No one wants to know why the Math works. They’re chomping on Texas Instruments… “Tell me what to DO, and I’ll DO IT! Please don’t make me think. I don’t freaking care… I just need to pass this test okay?”

And can you blame them? There aren’t any diplomas or gold stars for learning why it works. And the inner rewards are just not a priority when you’re playing metaphorical chutes and ladders everyday.

Not surprisingly- a lot of parents dislike Math Investigations.

“What is my child learning by grouping colored blocks?” By drawing pictures?”

Math Investigations make less sense to those who learned with the algorithm. I get it. It’s frustrating not being able to help a second grader with homework.

But here’s the thing- it’s not about the answer. Well, it’s kind of about the answer… it’s more about finding the answer without expending THE WHY.

It’s learning WHY it matters that counts. An answer will get you through the test. The WHY will get you through life. Thankfully, we live in a society where absorbing meaning from THE WHY- so it may be applied in all areas of understanding- is far more important than passing a test.

Oh wait.

*This post was conceived after reading “Master Splinter’s” ‘Redefining Math Literacy.’

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