Date: Aug 5, 2014 12:51 PM
Author: Jerry P. Becker
Subject: Don't Teach Math, Coach It
From The New York Times,Thursday, July 24, 2014. See
-- our thanks to Joan Leitzel for bringing this piece to our attention
Don't Teach Math, Coach It
By Jordan Ellenberg
MADISON, Wis. - PEOPLE ask me all the time how they can get their
kids excited about math. That ought to be a softball for me, because
I teach math for a living. I wake up excited about math.
But it's not that simple. With the college students I teach, it's a
straightforward transaction. They're paying me to teach them math,
and my job is to cajole or incentivize them into doing the work
that's necessary to learn the subject, whether they feel like it or
It's a different story with your own children. None of us want to be
Leo Wiener. Yes, Wiener helped shape his son, Norbert, into a child
prodigy who got a Ph.D. at Harvard at 18, and who later became a
groundbreaking mathematician. But this was how Norbert recalled the
"He would begin the discussion in an easy, conversational tone. This
lasted exactly until I made the first mathematical mistake. Then the
gentle and loving father was replaced by the avenger of the blood.
... Father was raging, I was weeping, and my mother did her best to
defend me, although hers was a losing battle."
No parents want this story told in their child's memoirs. But how can
we encourage kids in a difficult task like math without doing so in a
way they'll come to resent?
I found an answer in something my 8-year-old son, C. J., likes even
better than math: baseball. Let me be clear here. My level of skill
at baseball - actually, with every kind of ball - is pretty much the
opposite of my mastery of math. I've reached 40 and I still throw in
the way that we used to call, before they started showing college
softball on TV, "like a girl."
But C. J. is a baseball fanatic. He lives and dies with the Milwaukee
Brewers and he's pretty set on being one of them when he grows up. He
plays Little League with a fierce concentration I seldom see at home.
And I've learned a lot about what kind of math parent I want to be
from an unexpected source - his coaches.
Baseball is a game. And math, for kids, is a game, too. Everything
for them is a game. That's the great thing about being a kid. In
Little League, you play hard and you play to win, but it doesn't
actually matter who wins. And good coaches get this. They don't get
mad and they don't throw you off the team. They don't tell you that
you stink at baseball, even if you do - they tell you what you need
to do to get better, which everybody can do.
What does it mean to coach math instead of teaching it? For C. J., it
means I give him a "mystery number" to think about before bed. "I'm
thinking of a mystery number, and when I multiply it by 2 and add 7,
I get 29; what's the mystery number?" And already you're doing not
just arithmetic but algebra.
For his little sister, who's 4, that's too formal. But say we're at
the grocery store and we need four cans of soup and she brings me
two, and I say, "So we need three more, right?" and she says, "No,
Daddy!" That's really funny when you're 4. It's a game, and it's math.
Lots of games are math. There are the classics you know about: chess,
which builds the ability to follow a series of logical steps;
Monopoly, which demands basic arithmetic and probabilistic reasoning;
and Rubik's Cube, which is fundamentally an exercise in geometry and
But there are new classics, too, that weren't around when you were a
kid: Rush Hour, a board game about search algorithms; Set, a study in
higher-dimensional geometry in the form of a viciously competitive
card game; and DragonBox, an app for phone or tablet that teaches the
formalisms of algebra. Every one of these games shows kids
mathematical ideas in a spirit of play, which is a big and often
hidden part of the true spirit of math.
These games are difficult, but also, for many kids, kind of
addictive. Which means they also teach sitzfleisch, the ability to
focus on a complicated skill for the length of time it takes to
master it. Math needs that. (Baseball does, too.) It fits with the
research of the psychologist Carol Dweck, which suggests that mentors
should emphasize effort over native ability. We can't really teach
kids to do things; we can only teach them to practice things.
There are many things we'd like to coach our kids to do. And we can't
help playing favorites to some extent. I'll admit, I'd rather C. J.
aimed to be a mathematician than a shortstop. I tried to open his
eyes to some more realistic careers that could still satisfy his
hunger for the major leagues. "You know," I told him, "you really
like math, and all the teams now have people who work for them
analyzing the players' statistics. You'd probably enjoy that!"
At this suggestion he became agreeably eager. "Daddy, that's a really
good idea," he said. "Because almost all major league players have to
retire by the time they're 40 - so then I could get a job analyzing
Well, I tried.
SIDEBAR ILLUSRATION: Credit Tomi Um
Jordan Ellenberg, a professor of mathematics at the University of
Wisconsin, is the author of "How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of
A version of this op-ed appears in print on July 25, 2014, on page
A27 of the New York edition with the headline: Don't Teach Math,