Help your chil­dren learn to love math be­fore it’s too late

The Saratogian (Saratoga, NY) - - OPINION - Es­ther J. Cepeda Colum­nist Es­ther Cepeda’s email ad­dress is es­ther­j­[email protected]­, or fol­low her on Twit­ter: @es­ther­j­cepeda.

“I hate math!” As a fourth-grade math teacher, I hear this at least once daily. It’s like a dag­ger to the heart every sin­gle time. I have been hear­ing this even more since math in­struc­tion has moved away from first in­still­ing the ba­sics of ad­di­tion, sub­trac­tion, mul­ti­pli­ca­tion and divi­sion (to some detri­ment, I be­lieve) to­ward “prob­lem solv­ing” and ab­stracted ver­sions of the sim­ple equa­tions that older gen­er­a­tions prac­ticed.

Long be­fore the mantra of prob­lem solv­ing be­came gospel in ed­u­ca­tion, it fed into the con­cept of what a 21st cen­tury “leader” should be able to ac­com­plish. From there, the modern trans­for­ma­tional leader (usu­ally of the tech or fi­nance va­ri­ety) in­jected the credo into the hir­ing process, a la the famed set of puz­zles put forth to job ap­pli­cants at Google.

Ex­am­ple: “How would you cut a rec­tan­gu­lar cake into two equal pieces when a rec­tan­gu­lar piece has al­ready been cut out of it? The cut piece can be of any size and ori­en­ta­tion. You are only al­lowed to make one straight cut.”

This ques­tion re­quires an un­der­stand­ing of both math­e­mat­i­cal and geo­met­ric equal­i­ties, as well as back­ground knowl­edge of what a rec­tan­gu­lar cake looks like. Seems like com­mon sense stuff, but you’d be sur­prised how many peo­ple have trou­ble solv­ing it.

(Make a di­ag­o­nal cut through the cen­ter of the cor­ner of the miss­ing cake piece, by the way.)

The hu­man re­sources trend of test­ing po­ten­tial em­ploy­ees with puz­zles, brain teasers and, in some cases, ques­tions from the SAT test be­came stan­dard prac­tice at large or­ga­ni­za­tions circa 2015 — about the same time that K-12 pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion changed its ob­jec­tive from “ed­u­cat­ing cit­i­zens” to get­ting stu­dents “col­lege and ca­reer ready.”

As a re­sult, kinder­gart­ners are trained to parse sim­ple word prob­lems and taught to fill out work­sheets of sim­ple math equa­tions like “1 + 2 =” (pre­ma­turely, as far as I’m con­cerned).

So, when I get them in fourth grade, they ei­ther have ex­cel­lent math skills or “hate math” — in, al­most cer­tainly, the same pro­por­tions as when I was a fourth­grader. I heard the dreaded chant Mon­day again, as I as­signed the week’s home­work to my stu­dents.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Math abil­ity is as in­trin­si­cally avail­able to ev­ery­one as breath­ing or eat­ing.

Brain-sci­ence re­searchers at Johns Hop­kins Univer­sity re­cently ob­served that ba­bies as young as 14 months old seem to rec­og­nize that count­ing is about the di­men­sion of num­bers. Young kids don’t gen­er­ally un­der­stand the mean­ings of words like “two” and “three” un­til they hit preschool age. Writ­ing in the jour­nal De­vel­op­men­tal Sci­ence, the re­searchers con­cluded that count­ing “di­rects in­fants’ at­ten­tion to nu­mer­i­cal as­pects of the world, show­ing that they rec­og­nize count­ing as numer­i­cally rel­e­vant years be­fore ac­quir­ing the mean­ings of num­ber words.”

This is not to­tally ground­break­ing work — it builds upon a body of re­search that has plumbed the depths of how much num­ber sense hu­mans are born with.

For in­stance, some in­fants can dis­tin­guish be­tween images of 10 and 20 dots.

I’m no baby re­searcher, or math ex­pert for that mat­ter, but sci­ence also knows that nur­ture has at least as much in­flu­ence on hu­man de­vel­op­ment as na­ture. The miss­ing link be­tween ba­bies’ in­nate math skills and some el­e­men­tary school stu­dents’ ha­tred of math (some­times last­ing a life­time) could be as sim­ple as how much their par­ents prac­ticed num­ber sense with them.

As the Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion for the Ed­u­ca­tion of Young Chil­dren puts it, “From the mo­ment they are born, ba­bies be­gin to form ideas about math through ev­ery­day ex­pe­ri­ences and, most im­por­tant, through in­ter­ac­tions with trusted adults. Lan­guage — how we talk with in­fants and tod­dlers about math ideas like more, empty, and full — mat­ters.”

They don’t usu­ally tell you this in birthing classes, do they?

As with vir­tu­ally all other pos­i­tive early-child­hood habits — mak­ing eye con­tact, point­ing out pat­terns, mak­ing com­par­isons (like big and small) and mod­el­ling re­sponses to sim­ple ques­tions — par­ents with higher ed­u­ca­tions and in­comes just seem to know to do this with their chil­dren with­out be­ing taught.

Do this old math teacher a fa­vor: If you’re any­where near a baby or child, do some sim­ple, pos­i­tive, stress-free num­ber talk­ing with them, such as count­ing the stairs as you walk up or down. And what­ever you do, never, ever say you “hate” or aren’t “good at math.”

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