Friday, July 10, 2009


An essay regarding the teaching and learning of mathematics recently came through one of my email lists. I probably run across 2-3 interesting looking articles every day and have an email folder which contains hundreds that I intend to get to, but for some reason Lockhart's Lament caught my attention.

As a child I had always believed that I was good at math. And that I liked it. Because there was one right way to do things and one right answer and boy did I have a talent for following those rules. Until I got to calculus, where I realized that I actually sucked a math and it didn't make any sense at all and I didn't have anything else to do with it until I had to take quantatitive research statistic in graduate school.

However, as I began to read this 25 page polemic, which I confess I am only part way through, within the first several pages I began to realize just how badly I had misunderstood what exactly "it" is, when it comes to math. Dr. Lockhart argues that math is art, that it is about creativity and discovery -- two things that often left me uncertain in school, because I couldn't figure out how to tell if you got them right or wrong. What happened when I got to upper levels of math is that I simply wasn't prepared to function outside of the formulas and proofs which I didn't quite understand, but had previously been able to use well enough to get an answer.

As I processed this epiphany about my own math education I began to think about my oldest son. He has always enjoyed analytical games and has a knack for calculation (he was able to figure out how much 1/4 of 1 3/4 was prior to having any formal training in fractions - oh and in his head). He had worked with a math coach in the past, but had recently been doing "more creative" pursuits working on stop motion animation, drawing, photography, etc. I had wondered if perhaps I had been premature in seeing him as a "math mind" and that perhaps he was more suited to the arts....

I would imagine that you can see where this is going :).

So yes, after checking in with him we contacted his old math coach and he will be returning to her tutelage beginning next week. I shared with her that it was Lockhart's Lament that brought us back and she said that she had read and enjoyed the paper and offered Brain Rot as a similar perspective from another mathematician.

I am excited that we had this coach as a resource in our lives. I have no question about my ability to lead my children through what passes for math in our school system. But to quote Dr. Lockhart
The truly painful thing about the way mathematics is taught in school is not what is missing— the fact that there is no actual mathematics being done in our mathematics classes— but what is there in its place: the confused heap of destructive disinformation known as “the mathematics curriculum.” (p.14)
Because we have decided to homeschool and therefor have autonomy over the learning choices we make we are not tied to any such "mathematics curriculum". Our coach nurtures this creativity and discovery and shares this view of math.
Mathematics is about problems, and problems must be made the focus of a students mathematical life. Painful and creatively frustrating as it may be, students and their teachers should at all times be engaged in the process— having ideas, not having ideas, discovering patterns, making conjectures, constructing examples and counterexamples, devising arguments, and critiquing each other’s work. Specific techniques and methods will arise naturally out of this process, as they did historically: not isolated from, but organically connected to, and as an outgrowth of, their problem-background. (p. 16)
I am excited to see where this journey takes us.

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