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The World Doesn’t Need Another Math Textbook
I know this statement is shocking. Some of you may feel like I’ve announced the end of civilization as we know it. How can people learn math without the latest and greatest math textbook. The answer is simple. Similarly, people have always learned mathematics before the modern education system by doing mathematics in their daily lives. You may ask, “Is that possible?” “Would that work?” I believe so. This is why I made this statement when I was asked if my new book, Math is Child’s Play, was a math textbook. But honestly, let’s look at both sides, school math versus everyday math.
First, let’s look at school math. I’ve been learning about math anxiety lately. More and more people admit that they hate math, are not good at math, and are worried about doing basic math. These same people were taught math in our public schools. When did this math anxiety situation start? Who knows for sure? But the important thing is that it is increasing, not decreasing. It is growing despite the modern education system, the new mathematics and the latest teaching methods, despite all the money and energy that has been put into solving the problem. Just FYI, I found a book by Harold R. Jacobs, “Mathematics; A Human Endeavour”, copyrighted 1970, in which the author mentions the failure of the new mathematics in schools in the foreword. A 1964 book by Ralph Crouch and George Baldwin titled Mathematics for Elementary Teachers written to teach math to an elementary teacher who thought they should teach math even though they had no mathematical training.
Renowned math expert Marilyn Burns has tackled the problem of math anxiety since 1970 with her first book, I Hate Math, to her latest book, Math; Facing an American Phobia, in 1998. The last book is about math. 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’s math for the textbook industry. Math anxiety sells math textbooks. Parents are worried that their children are better at math than they are. Teachers are calling for a better way to teach math. This is great news for math textbook companies. That’s bad news for you and me.
So let’s look at the other side. Is it possible for people to learn mathematics in everyday life; running a business or household, doing projects, etc.? Is it possible? I believe it is and is already happening without anyone being aware of it. My daughter admitted she hates math, but she does math every day in Neopets. When I asked him about it, he said it wasn’t real math. So what math was that? I think he meant it wasn’t “school math”. I met an airline pilot who described in great detail the calculations he made in his head to fly the plane. He later admitted that he hated math at school. He wasn’t “good” at it. He couldn’t even balance his own checkbook. When I pointed out that the calculation he did to fly the plane was math, he was adamant that it wasn’t because he wasn’t very good at math at school. He said, “It’s just a formula that I plug the numbers into.” Marilyn Burn tells a similar story of an interior designer who was able to estimate the cost of an entire room but also felt she was not good at math. These are people who couldn’t do “school math” but do the math that their daily lives require of them. They probably learned this math on the job; so they don’t associate it with school math.
Mathematics is best learned in the real world, in real situations. It can start with reading the cookies your mom gives you. Later you start comparing the number you got with the number your brother got. You quickly learn to calculate how much more he got than you so that your complaint is accurate. Next, you watch your mom slice a pie or cake. You quickly work out how many pieces each person can have, that is, until Mom walks in and tells you how many you can actually have. Then you calculate how much you can have tomorrow when all those guests are gone. This is a simple real-life scenario, but how many math concepts did I cover here. These skills will grow with your children. How many of you have watched your older kids go through their Halloween candy. My child sorts and counts to assess how he did. Halloween is also a great time to teach taxes. Parents need to get their share of the sweet income, not just candy that the child doesn’t like. Remember, Uncle Sam cuts off his top before you see a dime.
Playing games is a great way to learn math. I like miniature golf and pool to learn about angles and power. Sure, it might sound like physics, Newton’s law of relativity. And it is, but there is no better way to learn geometry and algebra than through practical application. What could be more practical than learning by playing? Wow, here’s another example of life learning math. I like to play games. You name it; board games, card games, strategy games. If it challenges me and tests my intellect and problem-solving abilities, I like it. Games like Nim, checkers, chess, mancala, strategy, battleship, risk, etc. help develop logical sequences and strategy. Games like Uno, Skip-bo, Set, Rummikub help children develop the ability to see patterns. Games like cribbage, gin rummy, Scrabble actually help children practice addition and multiplication.
But enough of the games, let’s talk about serious things. If you want to learn math, do a project like decorating a room. Do all the work from calculating the color or wallpaper, calculating the material and sewing the curtains to ordering and placing the furniture. Design a new cabinet layout for your kitchen, including calculating cabinet dimensions, appliance placement and project costs. Try building something like a table, a playground swing set, or a cart. How about a baking or sewing/quilting project? Make all the preparations for the dinner party, including planning, shopping, seating arrangements, cooking, etc. Try paper trading and track them throughout the year. Start an eBay Business. Wow! Wouldn’t it be great if your kid’s math project turned into a home-based business that pays for your kid’s college education? It’s possible and it’s real life.
There are many ways to learn mathematics in everyday life, and learning is natural, not forced. On the other hand, the problem of math anxiety is rooted in our modern education system. The problem is that non-math experts teach math as if they were experts. The problem is with math textbooks that present math in an artificial and rigid way. As much as I enjoyed Marilyn Burns’ book, Math: Confronting America’s Phobia, I think she missed the bottom line of the situation. Ms. Burns is still trying to “fix” the system. It’s obvious to me that it’s time to ditch 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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