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The World Doesn’t Need Another Math Textbook
I know this statement is shocking. Some of you may think I heralded the end of civilization as we know it. How on earth will people learn math without the latest and greatest math textbook. The answer is simple. The same way people have always learned mathematics before the modern education system, by doing mathematics in their daily lives. You can ask “Is it possible?” “Would that work? I believe him. That’s why I made that statement when I was asked if my new book, “Mathematics is Child’s Play,” was going to be a math textbook. But in all honesty, let’s look at both sides, school math versus everyday math.
Let’s first look at math at school. I recently studied the subject of mathematical anxiety. More and more people report hating math, being “bad at math”, being anxious about doing basic math. These same people learned mathematics in our public schools. When did this mathematical anxiety situation begin? Who knows for sure? But what is important is that it increases, not that it decreases. It is increasing despite the modern educational system, despite the new mathematics and the latest teaching methods, despite all the money and energy that has been devoted to the problem. For the record, I found a book “Mathematics; A Human Endeavour” by Harold R. Jacobs copyrighted in 1970 which, in its preface, the author mentions the failure of new mathematics in schools. A 1964 book, titled “Mathematics for Elementary Teachers” by Ralph Crouch and George Baldwin that was written to teach math to elementary school teachers who found themselves expected to teach math despite having no math training.
Marilyn Burns, a well-known math expert, has been dealing with math anxiety since 1970 with her first book, “I Hate Mathematics” until her more recent book, “Math; Facing an American Phobia” 1998. The latter Mathematics book talks about anxiety as a growing phenomenon. And more recently “Math for the Anxious” by Rosanne Proga, copyright 2005, is also very clear about math anxiety and its causes. Of course, all that math anxiety is good; at least that’s for the math textbook industry. Math Anxiety sells math textbooks. Parents fear that their children will learn math better than they do. Teachers are calling for a better way to teach math. This is great news for math textbook makers. For you and me, this is bad news.
So let’s look at the other side. Is it possible for people to learn mathematics in everyday life? manage their business or household, make plans, etc. ? Is it possible? I believe it is and is already happening without anyone noticing. My daughter claimed to hate math, yet she does math every day on Neopets. When I asked her about it, she said it wasn’t real math. So what kind of math was that? I think she meant it wasn’t about “school math”. I met an airline pilot who detailed the calculations she made in her head to fly the plane. Later, she professed that she hated math at school. She wasn’t “good at it.” She couldn’t even balance her own checkbook. When I pointed out that the math she did to fly the plane was mathematical, she insisted it wasn’t because she wasn’t good at math in school. She said “It’s just a formula that I plug numbers into.” Marilyn Burn tells a similar story about an interior designer who could estimate the cost of an entire room, but also felt she was not good at math. These are people who could not do “school calculations” but who do the calculations that their daily lives require of them. They probably learned this math on the job; therefore, they do not relate it to school mathematics.
Math is best learned in the real world, with real situations. This can start by counting the cookies your mother gives you. Later you start comparing the number you got with the number your brother got. You quickly learn to calculate “how much” more than you, so that your complaint can be accurate. Then you watch Mom slice the pie or cake. You quickly calculate how many coins each person can have, until Mom steps in and tells you how many you can really have. Then you calculate how many you can have tomorrow with all those guests gone. This is a simple real life scenario, but how many math concepts have I covered here. These skills grow with your children. How many of you have seen your older children go through their Halloween candy. My child sorts and counts to evaluate his performance. Halloween is also a great time to teach taxes. Parents should take their share of sweet income, and not just sweets that the child does not like. Remember, Uncle Sam takes his cup off before you even see a penny.
Playing is a great way to learn math. I like miniature golf and billiards to learn angles and strength. Of course, this may sound like physics, Newton’s law of relativity. And it is, but there’s also no better way to learn geometry and algebra than with hands-on application. What could be more practical than learning while playing? Wow, here’s another real-life example of learning math. I like to play games. You name it; board games, card games, strategy games. If it challenges me and tests my intellect and problem-solving skills, I like it. Games like Nim, Checkers, Chess, Mancala, Stratego, Battleship, Risk, etc. help develop logical sequences and strategy. Games like Uno, Skip-bo, Set, Rummikub help children develop their ability to see patterns. Games like cribbage, gin rummy, Scrabble actually help kids practice addition and multiplication.
But enough with games, let’s talk about the serious stuff. If you want to learn math, do a project like decorating a room. Do all the work, from calculating the paint or wallpaper, to calculating the material and sewing the curtains, to ordering and positioning the furniture. Design a new cabinet layout for your kitchen, including calculating cabinet sizes, appliance positioning, and project costs. Try building something like a music stand or a seesaw or a go-kart. How about doing a baking or sewing/quilting project? Make all the preparations for a dinner party, including planning, shopping, seating arrangements, cooking, etc. Try trading stocks on paper and track them for a year. Start an eBay business. Wow! Wouldn’t it be something to turn your child’s math project into a home-based business that pays for your child’s college education? It is possible and it is real life.
When it comes to learning mathematics, daily life offers many opportunities and learning is natural and not forced. On the other hand, the problem of math anxiety is rooted in our modern educational system. The problem is that non-mathematical experts teach mathematics as if they were experts. The problem is having math textbooks that present math in an artificial and rigid way. As much as I liked Marilyn Burns’ book, “Math; Facing an American Phobia,” I think she missed the correct conclusion to the situation. Ms. Burns is still trying to “fix” the system. It’s obvious to me that it’s time to throw the system away and get back to learning math in everyday life. Therefore, I stand by my statement “The last thing the world needs is another math textbook”.
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