Wednesday, June 18, 2014


This week I'm posting a two-part blog -- and in ways the parts are contradictory, so stay with me, and see what you think.

Part One
Sue Bartle -- who posts here -- forwarded to me a wonderful post which I now want to share with you. The post centered on an interview with Jordan Ellenberg, a math professor who has a new book out titled How Not to Be Wrong.

Read what he says, then think about how you encountered Math, how it is taught anywhere you know, and, if you have read them, about the CC Math standards. The interview with Ellenberg was conducted, I believe, by Annie Murphy Paul:

Why does math fill so many of us with dread? I put that question to Ellenberg when we spoke by phone last week. “We teach math as if it’s about applying a prescribed formula, circlingthe right answer, and going on to the next problem without thinking about what it is we're
doing,” Ellenberg replied. “But that’s so not what math is. Math is a fundamentally creative enterprise, a fundamentally humanistic enterprise. It’s a lens through which we can see the world better.”>
> > Ellenberg sees the results of rote mathematics instruction in his
undergraduates: “It can be hard for my students to get into the mindset of
trying different things. Often, during my office hours, I'll get a student who
says of an assignment, ‘I didn't know where to start.’ I tell them, ‘Of course
you didn't know where to start! You're doing this for the first time, so try a
few things and see what works.’ But this approach is foreign to students who
have been taught that math is a series of formulas. They don't realize that math
is all about trial and error, about experimenting. That's true of advanced math,
but I think we can push that mindset down into the earlier grades as well.”> >
> Ellenberg acknowledges that his approach would require a paradigm shift.
“People are not used to taking a loose and easy approach to math. They get very
tight and tense around math because they have so much fear and anxiety about
it,” he noted. In addition, he said, “People dislike math because they don't
like being told that they're wrong. And it's not incorrect to see math as a
realm where there are right and wrong answers. But the thing is: knowledge in
math does not come about because the teacher says it's so. Math is a realm where
people can demonstrate the rightness of answers to themselves. So if part of
what creates the fear of math is wanting to avoid being wrong, then learning to
like math is about learning to be willing to mess up.”

Part Two

We just learned that our son will have to give up six weeks of his summer to take Algebra 1
and Geometry so he is ready for Algebra 2 on a track to Calculus when he enters 9th grade. He had a terrific summer planned, and we expected howls. He screamed once, negotiated for a
payoff treat, and then was fine with it. Why? On some level it felt like an honor, a step up -- if you want to play in the High School fast track, this is what you need to do. 

There is no getting around the fact that Math is a language that you need to learn. Ellenbergis saying -- once you begin to speak, you have real creativity and freedom. Sasha's school is saying, but you do need to learn the language -- and there may be no way there but the grind of summer school.

Maybe we need a two part approach to Math -- here is how cool it can be; here is what every oone must do to get to that cool place. 

What do you think. 



  1. I think what Sasha learned is true for every discipline. People need to learn the language and "the rules of the game" before they can engage in the dialogue. Educators acknowledge this when they use phrases like "reading like a historian" or "disciplinary literacy" or "academic language."

  2. I agree, so that is the two-part dance: learn the language, get to use it. Too often we act as if the language were the whole goal, or that you could skip the language and just have the fun -- you need both. Maybe that is what school is: learning languages so we can use them.

  3. I suggest a three-part dance--learn the language, learn the rules for playing, get to play.