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The World Doesn’t Need Another Math Textbook
I know this statement is shocking. Some of you may think that I have heralded the end of civilization as we know it. How will people learn math without the latest and greatest math textbook. The answer is simple. Just as people have always learned math before the modern education system, doing math as they go about their daily lives. You may ask yourself “Is it possible?” “Would it work?” I think so. This is why I made this statement when I was asked if my new book, “Mathematics is Child’s Play” would be a math textbook. But in all fairness, let’s look at both sides, school math versus everyday math.
Let’s look at school math first. Lately I’ve been studying the topic of math anxiety. More and more people profess to hate math, are “not good at math” and are anxious to do basic math. These same people were taught math in our public schools. When did this math anxiety situation start? Who knows for sure? But what is significant is that it is increasing, not decreasing. It is increasing in spite of the modern education system, in spite of the new mathematics and the latest teaching methods, in spite of all the money and energy that has been devoted to the problem. Just for the record, I found a book “Mathematics; A Human Endeavor” by Harold R. Jacobs copyrighted 1970 that in his preface the author mentions the failure of New Math in schools. A 1964 book, titled “Mathematics for Elementary Teachers” by Ralph Crouch and George Baldwin, which was written to teach math to an elementary school teacher who was expected to teach math even though they had no math background.
Marilyn Burns, a well-known math expert, has addressed math anxiety since 1970 with her first book, “I Hate Mathematics,” to her most recent book, 1998’s “Math; Facing an American Phobia.” This last book is about mathematics. 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 this math anxiety is good; at least it is for the math textbook industry. Math anxiety sells math textbooks. Parents worry that their children will learn math better than them. Teachers are calling for a better way to teach math. This is great news for math textbook companies. 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? running your business or home, doing projects, etc.? Is this possible? I think so and it’s already happening without anyone noticing. My daughter claimed to hate math, but she is doing math every day in Neopets. When I asked him about it, he said it wasn’t real math. So what kind of math was it? I think he meant it wasn’t “school math”. I met an airline pilot who went into great detail about the calculations he did in his head to fly the plane. He later confessed that he hated math at school. She wasn’t “good at it.” He wasn’t even able to balance his own checkbook. When I pointed out that the calculation she did to fly the plane was math, she said 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 relates a similar story about an interior decorator who could estimate the price of an entire room but also felt she was not good at math. These are people who couldn’t do “school math”, but who do the math that their everyday life demands 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 life situations. You can start by counting the cookies your mother gives you. Later, start comparing the number you got with the number your brother got. You quickly learn to calculate the “how many” more than you, so that your complaint is accurate. Next, you’re watching mom cut the cake or pie. You quickly work out how many pieces each person can have, that is, until Mom steps in and tells you how many you can actually have. Then you calculate how many you can have tomorrow with all those missing guests. This is a simple real-life scenario, but how many mathematical concepts have I covered here. These skills grow with your children. How many of you have seen your older kids pass out their Halloween candy? My son sorts and counts to assess how he did. Halloween is also a great time to teach about taxes. Parents need to take their share of the candy earnings, and not just the candy that the child doesn’t like. Remember, Uncle Sam takes the cut off the top before you ever see a dime.
Playing is a great way to learn math. I like miniature golf and pool to learn about angles and strength. Of course, this may sound like Physics, Newton’s Law of Relativity. And so it is, but there is also no better way to learn geometry and algebra than with a practical application. What could be more practical than learning while playing? Wow, here’s another real life example for learning math. I like playing. You say it; board games, card games, strategy games. If it challenges me and tests my intelligence and problem-solving ability, I like it. Games like Nim, Checkers, Chess, Mancala, Stratego, Battleship, Risk, etc. they 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 really help kids practice addition and multiplication.
But enough with the games, let’s talk about serious stuff. If you want to learn math, do a project like decorating a room. Do all the work from calculating paint or wallpaper, to calculating material and sewing curtains, to ordering and placing furniture. Design a new cabinet layout for your kitchen, including calculating cabinet dimensions, appliance placement, and project costs. Try building something, like a play table or swing, or a cart. How about doing a baking or sewing/quilting project? Make all the preparations for a dinner party, including planning, shopping, seating, cooking, etc. Try paper trading some stocks and track them for a year. Start an eBay business. Wow! Wouldn’t it be great to have your child’s math project turn into a home business that pays for your child’s college education? It is possible and it is real life.
When it comes to learning math, everyday life has many opportunities and learning is natural, not forced. On the other hand, the problem of math anxiety is rooted in our modern education system. The problem lies in having non-math experts teaching math as if they were experts. The problem lies in having math textbooks that present math in an artificial and rigid way. As much as I enjoyed Marilyn Burns’ book, “Mathematics; Confronting an American Phobia”, I think she missed the correct conclusion of the situation. Ms. Burns is still trying to “fix” the system. It’s obvious to me that it’s time to throw out the system and get back to learning math in everyday life. So I stand by my statement “The last thing the world needs is another math textbook.”
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