Why should children learn math?

In my hunt for what's next I've been reading a lot of books lately. A lot of books. As part of my search I decided to hunt down some of the classics in the computer science field that I'd missed over the years. First articles, then research papers, and some Alan Kay work. That led me to a book I'd always meant to read but never found the time: Mindstorms, by Seymour Papert.

You probably don't know the name Seymour Papert, but you if you are reading this blog you almost certainly know one of his greatest creations, and the topic of Mindstorms, the programming language Logo.

My first experience with computers in the early 80s was an Apple II running Logo. Though I obviously didn't realize it at the time, Logo was surreptitiously teaching me math, geometry, and Lisp. (Yes, Logo is a pure functional language). It probably set gears in motion to encourage my later pursuit of software as a career. Here's a quick example:

to spiral :size
   if  :size > 30 [stop] ; an exit condition
   fd :size rt 15        ; many lines of action
   spiral :size *1.02    ; the tailend recursive call
spiral 10

image from wikipedia

I haven't finished the book yet so I'll leave the review for another day. Instead I want to talk about the main thesis of the book's section on teaching (and really the main point of the book itself): How can we teach math better, and are we even teaching the right thing?

Early on Papert makes the point that children often identify with a deficiency: "I can't learn French, I don't have an ear for languages". These identities become entrenched and difficult to change, and the are reinforced by a society that is largely mathaphobic. Then he gets to the part that really made me stop and think:

It is easy to understand why math and grammar fail to make sense to children when they fail to make sense to everyone around them and why helping children to make sense of them requires more than a teacher making the right speech or putting the right diagram on the board. I have asked many teachers and parents what they thought mathematics to be and why it was important to learn it. Few held a view of mathematics that was sufficiently co-herent to justify devoting several thousand hours of a child’s life to learning it, and children sense this. When a teacher tells a student that the reason for those many hours of arithmetic is to be able to check the change at the supermarket, the teacher is simply not be-lieved. Children see such “reasons” as one more example of adult double talk. The same effect is produced when children are told school math is “fun” when they are pretty sure that teachers who say so spend their leisure hours on anything except this allegedly fun-filled activity. Nor does it help to tell them that they need math to become scientists— most children don’t have such a plan. The children can see perfectly well that the teacher does not like math any more than they do and that the reason for doing it is simply that it has been inscribed into the curriculum. All of this erodes children’s confidence in the adult world and the process of educa-tion. And I think it introduces a deep element of dishonesty into the educational relationship.

quote from Mindstorms by Seymour Papert. emphasis of last sentence in the original text.

This really made me think. Why did I love math and so many kids don't? Was it genetic? (unlikely) Was it a family member? (probably) Was it a good teacher? (certainly). We can't depend on happenstance to make children who like math. When a kid asks the question "Why should I learn math?" what do we tell them that isn't doublespeak? Surely we have a better answer than 'to be able to check the change at the supermarket'. (itself a largely irrelevant task today)

Well, I can't answer this for everyone, but I want a solid response when Jesse one day asks me the question. My best response so far: Math lets you understand things and make things happen.

Your response?

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Posted February 6th, 2013

Tagged: rant education