|Photo courtesy of Mauro Barsi|
Think about when you were first learning mathematics as a child. Arithmetic. Did you like it? Many children do not.
Odds are it’s because they can’t figure out its purpose, function, or application. More importantly, unless they are in the hands of an enlightened teacher who takes the time to provide context, they are never really told how all the parts fit together, and that math is progressive: arithmetic, algebra, geometry plane and coordinate, trigonometry, the calculus…
When I work with children who claim they don’t like math, I help them break things down by using the metaphor of the ocean.
I start with a simple question, “What is the ocean?”
Most often, children reply that it’s a large body of salt water. Some are more detailed by mentioning the large expanse, or the waves; the creatures that inhabit the waters, or sandy beaches.
That’s where we start. We then talk about the ocean as an ecosystem. Children generally understand questions about habitats and are able to discuss the interrelationships between various animal and plant communities. Older children can participate in discussions of the chemistry of salt water or the physics of compression or deep water vents with their unusual communities of anaerobic bacteria.
The next step is to help these these children see how mathematics is like the marine ecosystem, which involves a series of interrelated bodies intertwined in such a way that they are all necessary to each other in order to support the entire structure that is the ocean.
From there, conversations about the mathematical underpinnings of nature (the Fibonacci sequence, for example), of music (rhythm, chording), of architecture, of automotive engineering, of the digital world of computing are all logical outcroppings.
I have seen children who don’t like math learn to embrace it as the tool that it is: a pathway toward understanding the complex world around us, a key to unlock secrets of otherwise elusive concepts.
Once children have the opportunity to explore the reasons for studying mathematics, sometimes a fire can ignite within them that is stupendous to behold.
It’s a lifelong gift to help a child realize that mathematics does not exist on a shelf by itself, but rather forms the basis for our understanding of diverse fields of human endeavors.