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

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/25/opinion/dont-teach-math-coach-it.html?_r=1

-- our thanks to Joan Leitzel for bringing this piece to our attention

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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

not.

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

process:

"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

group theory.

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

the statistics!"

Well, I tried.

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SIDEBAR ILLUSRATION: Credit Tomi Um

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Jordan Ellenberg, a professor of mathematics at the University of

Wisconsin, is the author of "How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of

Mathematical Thinking."

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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,

Coach It.

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