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
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
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
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.
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, Coach It.