Mean Math

Two experiences this month have opened my eyes to the value of the research we are learning about at the AIMS Center. One involves my 5th grade daughter Neva, and the other was a conversation with a second grade student I have been working with.

Neva says she doesn’t like math, but she has been coming home intrigued by discussions with students in class around mathematics. One of the discussions was about the square root of 4, which she has had no formal instruction around. I didn’t answer the question, but told her that taking the square root of a number is the inverse of squaring the number. Through this and other probing questions she was able to begin finding the square roots of numbers. She then inquired, “So there is no square root of 2?” We began to explore this thought for two days. After a lot of work, she finally realized that the number exists, but will “continue on forever.” Her reaction was quite comical as she looked at me, hands up in the air stating, “You mean I did all of this work for nothing? I will never be able to find it?”  As a proud mother, I posted about it on Facebook.

This was the first experience Neva has had with the frustration, joy, and outright oddity of some abstract mathematical concepts. The comments in response to my story on Facebook ranged from pride and encouragement, to consoling my poor daughter for being mathematically “abused”. It was hilarious. Of course, Neva didn’t feel abused. These were her questions we were exploring.

This leads me to my second experience. I was saying my goodbyes to a student at the end of our last teaching session before summer break. She always expressed excitement to work with us, which led to my complete surprise when she uttered the words, “I hate math”. I asked her what she meant, since she always said she loved coming. Her next statement made me understand why so many people consider math abusive and claim to hate math. She told me, “Well this is fun math. THAT (pointing toward her classroom) is MEAN math.” Mean was the adjective she chose!

You’re probably thinking she is just playing when she is with us, and not really learning math. Let me assure you, she has been working with complex (for a second grader) concepts building foundations for multiplicative understanding and developing a meaningful skip count that afforded her the ability to use it in solving real world problems. These are concepts within and beyond the second grade standards. The biggest difference between the research around student’s mathematics and “mean math” is it allows the children to think for themselves, creating their own methods of solving with prompting toward conceptual understanding instead of teaching rigid methods and algorithms. Our culture around what it means to “teach” mathematics has to change if we want our society to grow up with fun math, and not MEAN math.

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