The Math problem

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.


4 comments on “The Math problem

  1. Like most everything else in life, math is most definitely assimilated. Learned organically. Schools and teachers need to use the terms teaching and learning to justify their existence. But people “learn” math in many instances when they don’t even realize it. I’m not sure a classroom of kids can assimilate math, at least not all at the same time in the same way.

    When my eldest unschooled daughter tried high school back in the 1980s, she knew math. But she didn’t have the formulae or the jargon down pat, hadn’t memorized anything. Took her teachers awhile to understand that she understood more about it than they did because she’d been interested in pondering the problems that she’d identified. And that she could easily superimpose the language onto that knowing. It’s truly about knowing rather than memorizing.

    Your friend has the same problem talking about math as I have had for 40 years talking about learning in general. Would like to avoid the word “unschooling” because I don’t think it’s the right one. But then nobody much understands what I mean when I say “life learning.” Nor do web search engines. 😉

    Interesting post.

    • Amy says:

      Thanks Wendy,

      Yes I think you are right. Whenever anything is done in mass production format it loses quality and once that is the accepted method, it is wildly difficult to dismantle and re-introduce the individuality it requires.

      The semantics of talking about these issues is such a challenge. I had a conversation with Jeremy Stuart about it when he was in town doing interviews for his film “Class Dismissed”. I prefer your term life learning as well because it is more accurate (& positive). But as you say, no one understands what it means or they kind of give an eye roll (hippie freaks!). Sigh. So unschooling is easier. Hmmm, am I caving to the same powers that sustain factory schooling? Because it’s easier?


  2. I love this topic and have a HUGE HATRED for “math” due to school though I’m known in real-life as a bit of an excel guru…where I can do relevant math with equations.

    What I really love is Richard Feyman’s take which I covered earlier this week here You can watch his YouTube videos where he explains oh-so-well how school ruins math.

    I think you’ll also appreciate what Garfunkle and Mumford say about how to fix math education here

  3. Steven Davis says:

    Its interesting that so many people have a “math problem” yet they don’t seem to have a problem with money.

    No one would ever consider NOT teaching their children about money.

    … and very few children need extra motivation to learn about money.

    And money is certainly math…. and can be used for teaching most of the math anyone needs and is motivation for learning an awful lot of the math that almost anyone would ever need.

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