The Stodgy Living Room with Protective Covers on the Furniture

September 23, 2010

I’ve been so swamped with students (and the logistics that accompany them) that I haven’t had much time to post lately; too bad, because my mind has been buzzing. I’ve had such great experiences with these new kids, and read so much cool stuff, that I’m dying to put it down here. Let’s see what I can do.

One of my new students is 9, and I’ve met him twice at this point. I was thinking about what happened when we met up the first time, and I realized that we, as a culture, treat mathematics like a living room that’s too good to waste on children. We cover the furniture with plastic sheeting and only take them off when important guests come. It’s a room you aren’t allowed to use, and when you go in you have to tip-toe with your shoes off. Kids go from “A new room to play in!” to “Why is there all this sheeting here?” to “I’m not supposed to play in here” to, usually by age 12-15, “Why would anyone want to go in that musty old room?”

Which brings me back to this student. His mom called me because he used to love math, and lately had been growing to hate it. He’s a third grader, and had just learned “I’m not supposed to play in here.”

When I met him, I asked him a little about himself, what he was interested in, and, at one point, asked him how he would describe math to someone who had never heard of it before. Do you know what he said?

“Math is something you use every day. Like if you need to make change, you use math.”

My blood bubbles just writing those words. Why would any 9-year-old say something like that, except that they were repeating the edicts of some well meaning math teacher leading them down the road to hell? Are they dealing with money so frequently that they need to make change every day? This “definition” isn’t remotely his, and has nothing to do with him. More so, he had nothing to add when I asked for more. All math is good for, apparently, is making change. I asked him what room was through that door, and he basically told me, “that’s a very important room where grownup stuff happens and I’m not allowed to play in there (or really be in there at all).”

So I asked him how he would describe art. While I can’t remember what he said word for word, the gist of it was:

“I love art. You get to make designs and draw and make patterns.”

In other words, “That’s my room! I get to have fun there and do what I want to do.”

How in the world did things get this way? Why did we decide that math was so precious that kids aren’t allowed to play with it? Are we worried they’ll break it?


The good news is that it took about twenty minutes to totally change his perspective. I told him that what we were going to do wasn’t useful at all, and would be more like art, and then launched in. I can’t recall exactly what our path was that first day, but it involved square numbers, and he found a pattern that allowed him to write square numbers up to 15*15 without multiplying. When he saw that he could play, discover patterns, and rearrange things to suit him–that this room belonged to him–everything changed: he was giving me (and his mom, who watched on across the table) high fives after each insight. Working with him was a joy. Basically, all I had to do was tear the sheeting off the furniture and let him know he could do whatever he wanted in the room that houses mathematics, and he went to town. With the ownership (“This is actually my room!”) came the love (“There’s so much cool stuff in here to play with!”), and his outlook is basically that of a mathematician.

I’ll tell you this: when I imagine the room that is mathematics to me, there’s no plastic sheeting on the furniture, and the sun is shining in through the windows; the dark corners are the most exciting, because I know there’s amazing stuff waiting there, and maybe I’ll be able to touch it, or bend the room so the sun shines into that corner too, or maybe it’s a corner I’ve already been to but I haven’t learned to recognize it yet. Just thinking about it is exciting!

Who would want to spend time in a gray old room with plastic on the furniture anyway? Nothing has to be that way except that we make it so.

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2 years ago

I love the way you’ve explained that! Beautiful! I also see the same parrallel with children and their relationship to God and relgious teachers making it like the “formal plastic room” instead of the green fields of freedom God calls us to. Thanks for sharing!