Wednesday, April 28, 2010

I don't do Math, but I like problems

When I think about student engagement, I always try to compare where I was most engaged (anything with problems and critical thinking) to where I was least engaged - Math. That's interesting, because I had some engaging teachers who taught me math, and a number of my friends are Math teachers. There must be something there when so many people I like and respect use so much of their time and energy to work on it...

For years, I pegged my low potency in Math to my dyslexia. How can you feel able when 6 and 9 or 3 and 8 look the same and you are always getting basic arithmetic wrong? When you are always making mistakes, I told myself, it is hard to be engaged. Yet as the same time, I actually sought out other things because they weren't easy. I loved English and History, although my writing was full of spelling mistakes that never failed to illicit comments from my teachers about how I did it wrong. I also really liked all the sciences, and liked the applied Math I found in them.

I have been reading Dan Meyer's blog dy/dan since meandthedoor sent it to me. She sent out another link to Dan's TEDx talk and I watched it. I think Dan has it right on the money.  I have been gradually realizing that I didn't hate Math because I made computational errors, I hated it because I didn't see it as problems or creative thinking.  This is a little ironic, as my father (yup, mathematician) and one of my best friends (physicist), are always "going on" about how math is the language of all the interesting questions in the world.

I use my mathematics education all the time - basic arithmetic, but also geometry when I build things and statistics because they interest me. Permutations and combinations were my favorite unit in all of my K-12 math education because they were about prediction and I could see how I was using them to problem solve choices I was making playing cards. I guess every time my math is problem solving I like it, but in my education it rarely was. Even word problems were just identifying the formula and subbing in the variables.

I know the many good math teachers I know are not surprised that students don't feel they can do it and just want a formula. I was always way better at memorizing the formula and doing the evens or odds in the text than I was at understanding the why. But understanding the why is what would have made Math relevant for me, and I would have persevered through lack of potency if I was really thinking critically. I just wasn't doing much thinking most of the time.

Dan talks early on in the video about how textbooks are a big part of the problem. They were for me. Since they gave me only the variables I needed, they were like a badly written mystery. You know, the kind where the only minor characters you meet will be significant later? You don't do any thinking there, you just sub in Mr. Scott in as the murder. If I had been figuring out what I needed to know and excluding irrelevant information, the why would have been automatic, as would my sense of engagement. I have always liked a challenge, but math just seemed to be low level thinking.

As my husband is teaching math to our daughters, I can see that texts are starting to change, but the problems Dan identifies are still firmly in place.  I'd sure welcome some insights from my math loving friends on this one. Is Dan right in your experience? How do you think we should teach math? I have always liked a good problem - and maybe it is worth starting to do the math.