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Learning to Love Math
This article, by Alison Moore Smith, was originally published in the September-October 1995 issue of Home Education Magazine.



When I was nearly four years old my father received his PhD in mathematics at UCSB, and since that time he has been a professor of mathematics at BYU. On June 30th, 1995, he retired from his position but not, I'm sure, his love of messing around with math.
All my life I enjoyed math and performed well in my classes (I guess it's in my blood). Most of my girlfriends hated it or, at least, thought I was nuts to enjoy the subject. For years I alternated between feeling weird and feeling smart. (If you care to categorize me, I now prefer the latter!)
Just months after Jessica was born I happened upon an article in Parents magazine entitled "Math Stinks!" I do not recall the author nor many specifics, but I do vividly remember being enthralled by the content. It explained this dichotomy and it began a whole new way of thinking about raising my daughter (which has subsequently become raising three daughters).
Although young girls generally score better on math tests than do boys, as they get closer to adolescence they tend to fall farther and farther behind. This discomfort, disinterest, or just plain difficulty (technically called "math anxiety," and also seen in boys) is often reinforced by parents (especially mothers) making comments to their children (especially daughters) such as, "Well, I never liked math either," or "I never was any good at math," or "Well, we Smiths just don't seem to have mathematical minds."
Statements like these imply that it's perfectly normal and acceptable for a child not to excel in math. They also seem to hint toward feelings of, "Well, I'm no good at math and I've done just fine without it. You will too."
Never have I met a parent (although they may exist) who would say to a child, "Well, I never liked reading either," or "I was never any good at thinking myself," or even, "Well, we Smiths just don't seem to have historical minds." So why is it acceptable to promote math illiteracy to our kids when we would never promote other illiteracy?
Last year my sister, Nora M. Hess, received her master's degree in math education with a thesis entitled "Elementary School Teachers, Scientists, and the Two Cultures of Mathematics." It clearly shows that elementary teachers (who introduce many children to math) are often (though not always) people who have never enjoyed the subject! Many tend to see math as a magical set of rules to be memorized and regurgitated.
My husband, who is a professor of ocean engineering, and I have often discussed encouraging our daughters in math and science. We have noticed how many educational and career opportunities are unavailable to those who cannot or will not take advanced mathematical courses. It has seemed to me that many of the "traditionally female" fields are simply a segregation of those which do and do not require advanced math. We wanted to ensure that our children are not limited by a lack of knowledge.
My theory about math avoidance was backed up handily when I discovered an article by Lucy Sells entitled "Mathematics - a critical filter." Ms. Sells research showed some amazing facts. In an interview of freshmen entering UC Berkeley, 57% of males had taken four yours of high school math, but a mere 8% of females had taken as much. Without those four years of math, 43% of the males and a whopping 92% of the females could not qualify for many entry-level courses. This disqualified them from ten out of the twelve colleges at the university, and 22 out of 44 majors! Half of their potential career choices were eliminated by their past math avoidance!
If you, as a parent, have an aversion to math, don't let it rub off on your children Do something about it! Go to the library. Read books about math, math anxiety, and math avoidance. Ask for advice from people who actually like math and use it all the time! Ask mathematicians, engineers, physicists, and statisticians for the best ways to learn math. Conversely, don't readily take mathematical advice from those whose degrees, lives, and jobs do not require the use of higher level math, and especially not from those who dislike it or have made college or career choices in order to avoid it. Some universities even give workshops that re-teach math to adults who believe that they just cannot do it. You can change your attitude for the better and greatly influence your children in the process.
There are methods of teaching mathematics which encourage a love and interest in math, and those which tend to kill the joy. If I could give you one piece of advice, it would be this: Please avoid the drill-to-kill, memorize-to-mummify, repetition-without-reason textbooks!
What can you do to bring out a love of math in your kids?
* It's OK to count on your fingers1or pebbles or candies or pennies or rods or sticks or blocks1even for advanced students. Use hands-on stuff and always have a manipulative to fall back on. Mess with real stuff first; experiment, discover. The algorithm comes last!
* Critical thinking exercises are a wonderful way to get kids out of the textbook what-is-the-magic-formula mode. It helps them to see that in real life (just as in real math) there are many ways to approach a problem. Math is creative!
* Play lots of games that will increase mathematical understanding. Try guessing games like hiding a penny in one of ten numbered bags, and figuring the most efficient way to find it. Look for Set, Quarto, Tangrams, and other pattern recognition games. Play Monopoly and chess. Do puzzles and brain teasers. These are not gussied up rote drill and memorization activities! Comprehension is the key!
* Remember that real math is in real life, not on a page in a text. Never do a math problem without a basis in the real world. Figure out how far the car travels in a second. Decide how to divide two bananas fairly between 5 people. Find how many cans of paint are needed to paint three rooms. Every operation applies to something!
* Discuss great math concepts for fun. Why don't things disappear when you keep dividing them in half? Why does go on forever? How tall would a stack of a million dollars be? What really happens when you divide by zero? Why do two negative numbers multiply together to form a positive? Talk about the cool stuff!
All these things are appropriate for elementary school. Don't believe that the great math is only for those at an advanced level. If it were, few of us would retain interest long enough to find out about it.
If you jump into math with enthusiasm, your children can come out winners. Thanks for the head-start, Dad!
1995 Alison Moore Smith

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