Yesterday I had an enlightening discussion about Math with my friend Emile Gergin, who is a retired physicist. (Not really retired – just retired from work but not from being a physicist.) The discussion evolved out of my telling him about the Flipping With Kirch blog post – what the teacher had written, my response & subsequent blog post, etc.
And so we talked about Math – which is the subject Crystal Kirch teaches – and learning. I pointed out that when Kirch mentioned – and so many teachers agreed – that a portion of her students “don’t know how to learn” what she really meant was that they don’t know how to learn the way she wants them to. We talked about why that is, and why many kids dislike Math from an early age. I said I believe it has to do with relevance; that math only takes hold when it has purpose & application and is not simply a bunch of equations randomly presented & deemed as important by the powers that be.
I am somewhat accustomed to teachers disputing my beliefs about learning, but in this case as I spoke, Emile was nodding in agreement. And then he said something that blew my mind. He said:
“I have a problem with using the word ‘learn’ in regards to Math. You do not learn Math, you assimilate Math.”
Oh my god I love that! That is an absolutely perfect statement. Math is not learned, but assimilated. Or at least it should be but rarely is because of the way Math is “taught” in school.
But wait, there is more.
Emile went on. He said, “There are some things that you must memorize in order to know them. For instance, if someone says to you ‘When was the Battle of Hastings?’ there is no formula you can use to figure out the answer. You either know it because you memorized it, or you go look it up, but those are your only choices. With Math it is just the opposite. If you memorize or “learn” Math, you do not know Math at all.”
Right? Is your mind blown?
According to my friend Emile (who knows more about math than all of us put together could ever hope to know) the very use of the word “learn” in regards to Math is incorrect. The very idea that memorization of any sort is useful in Math is incorrect.
So how do we proceed? Although the ultimate goal may be a society filled with open learning centers & unschoolers, that’s not our reality right now. How can a classroom of kids assimilate Math, when assimilation happens best through individual curiosity out in the world? How can it happen among kids who’ve been successfully schooled in the idea that they “can’t learn” Math?
“Therein lies the rub” as Hamlet would say.
I don’t have all the answers, which is why an open discussion where new ideas and ways of thinking are presented can only be a good thing. Emile & I agree that even using the word “Math” is a disadvantage, because there is so much stigma surrounding it based on peoples’ experiences in school. He is writing a book about assimilating Math and told me that for a while he was trying to think of a way to write the whole book without using the words math or mathematics at all. English Lit person that I am, I immediately thought of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”. In the theater it is referred to as “The Scottish Play” because use of the word “Macbeth” was thought to bring bad luck. Too bad we don’t have a similar phrase we could use instead of Math.
The problem is not math, but our approach to it and beliefs surrounding it. How do we change them? Emile’s statement that math is not learned but assimilated feels like a good place to start.