Who’s Afraid of Mathematics?

This article grew out of a stray conversation with a friend who dropped in over the weekend. His daughter apparently hates math. My friend shrugged it off to lack of aptitude. “You either have it or you don’t”, he said. It makes his parenting style relaxed, conscious.  He doesn’t want to stress out his teenager. She has enough on her plate already with tuitions, guitar classes, tennis lessons and school. He would be happy if she scraped through her 10th grade. Afterwards she can switch over to arts. But he is a bit disappointed, you know.  It would be nice if she had been “gifted” with that elusive math gene. He looked wistfully at my daughter Viveka’s selection of math “novels.” Written by Kjartan Poskitt, they come with quirky names like Murderous Maths, Vicious Circles and other Savage Shapes, Mean and Vulgar Bits, Attack of the Killer Puzzles and so on. They are terribly irreverent and hilariously illustrated. They have really helped Viveka claim math as her own. Looking through the books, my friend automatically assumed that Viveka was ‘gifted’.

Cut to the time when just before we pulled Viveka out of school, she came and announced that she hated math and the floor just gave way under my feet. This was just the first standard and yet the system had managed to set her up for failure, to be forever perceived as someone with no aptitude for math. Fortunately this and a few more timely hints later, she was out of school forever.  And now she is being thought of as a math whiz. What is this elusive aptitude and why is it more important than effort?

Actually if I use my two children as cottage industry scale research for this article, I would say that having never been corrupted by The System, my 8 -year-old son is the math natural. He sees rhythms and patterns everywhere. He lives in a math world.  We were learning a poem through a hand-clapping game and he stopped suddenly to say that this poem had been written in the ‘3’ table and proceeded to prove it to me by substituting the words of the poem with the multiples of 3.

My daughter on the other hand took time to lick her wounds and begin the slow circuitous path back to number land. We took the Waldorf approach of starting slowly, always the experience before the concept. Always real before abstract. Never boring, never tedious. We played and still play a lot of board games- battleships, palaankuzhi (mancala), Dara, all manner of card games, checkers and chess. Every year the complexity of the games grows. We did a lot of clapping and stamping, poems, verses and hopscotch, and of course Kjartan Poskitt. One day a couple of years ago she didn’t want to do any of her daily activities planned and asked for some time off. She wanted to play the Tower of Brahma game on the computer. (http://www.gamesnovatory.com/brahma.html; http://www.dynamicdrive.com/dynamicindex12/towerhanoi.htm)

She sat for close to 4 hours at it before she cracked the puzzle. And when I asked her if she knew it was pure math, what she had been doing, she said: “Yes, but it’s also fun math…” And yet my father, the conservative voice of reason in my life, throws random questions at them – what is 17 X 3 or 2 to the power of 23 and if they can’t answer him immediately, he thinks they are lacking in math skills and therefore I should send them back to school. I tell him that memory and math ability are very different things. And maybe when Viveka tells him how much she is enjoying cracking codes these days, he might believe me.

Someday people are going to start correlating math anxiety or poor math skills with bad teaching practices, like too-early introduction of concepts, particularly abstract concepts, that involve memorising, and the throwing of random multiplication facts at the kids and the worst, unendingly torturous worksheets. Until then my kids will be continued to be treated as the weird ones or savants for merely admitting that they love math.

1 thought on “Who’s Afraid of Mathematics?”

  1. Absolutely brilliant. What a profound article? Completely resonate and I am a big believer of introducing experiences before concepts. All I can say is – Thank you Hema Sah. And we love battleships and mancalas in our home too.

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