By Esther Cepeda
CHICAGO — “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 fourth-grader. 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.”
Cepeda is a columnist for the Tribune Content Agency.