Guest Blog: What we talk about when we talk about math

January 13, 2011

Today’s blog posting is courtesy of Katherine Cook. Enjoy!

The other day I read the popular book Born To Run. When I say the other day, take it at face value, because the book is so quick to read. It was a good day, though, because Born To Run is a great book. And it belongs here on the Math For Love blog. Let me convince you.

What I think is the most compelling feature of the book is that it is story about love. Specifically, it is about people doing something for no other reason than for the love of it, and the ʻsomethingʼ under discussion here is long-distance running. Because of love,the quirky characters in the story run hours on end, through the dark, rain, cold, heat, and every extreme to complete ultra-marathons (races in excess of the standard 26.6 mile marathon, often around 50 miles, sometimes more).

Because of love, they build their lives to accommodate this strange interest. Most of us think weʼd start running optimistically, only to find ourselves struggling second by second through a miserable suffer-fest and quit by mile 10, maybe 26 if we were in marathon shape, but definitely not find ourselves running by flashlight through the night to finish the 50 mile run within the allotted time. The runners in the story tell it differently though. Some races are hard, and they describe plenty of suffering. But more than anything else, the runners talk of the love, the sheer exuberance of their bodies unleashed, the play they find in just. simply. running.

When we talk about math education, what are we talking about? Multiplication tables?
Solid quantitative reasoning skills? True, we can only make things better by equipping people with the skills they need to understand statistics, compound interest, and so on. When we talk about mathematics education, we are talking about addressing the constantly changing, multifaceted, and nuanced needs of an immense population. This is a hard problem. But on the local level, when I talk about math education, I often, somehow, find myself talking about love. I canʼt help it. I try to focus on the assessments, the core standards, the modalities, the strands, but I always come back to the love. Talk to a mathematician (recreational or professional), and youʼll more than likely find a reservoir of love, a sheer exuberance of the mind unleashed, and the delight they take in just playing.

When we do mathematics, we are playing. We do it because we love it. And just like the point of play is to continue playing (to not rush to the conclusion of the game too quickly; in other words, not to simply win but rather to simply play), the point of mathematics, at least mathematics done well, is not to simply rush to the answer and be done with it, but to explore and savor the surprises along the way.

If you were a long-distance runner, you wouldn’t necessarily know of the love some of the ultra-marathoners profess for their sport. You maybe would do it for the challenge, or the money, or that moment after a race when you know youʼve finished the grueling task you set for yourself. In the world of distance running, those are all perfectly respectable motivations, but they are fundamentally different than doing it because you just love it.

In math, we can teach it so that people are good at saving for retirement, can count change, or even understand how to build a bridge the correct way, but they may never enjoy it until we start teaching them how to love it. Or even that they can, and that once they do, it will change the way they look at things.

In Born To Run, the runners are able to perform incredible feats of physical endurance by drawing on their vast stores of love, as much as anything else. What gets them out the door every single day is not necessarily a looming race, but the temptation of an-other 15 miles spent doing what they love. Malcolm Gladwell has directed his attention to this recently, taking up the issue of genius and saying that what sets a genius apart from the rest of us is not some freakish innate skill, but love. Love enough, at least, to motivate them to work a lot on the thing they love, thereby becoming masters at their chosen pursuit. The saying we sometimes hear is ʻ99% perspiration, 1% inspirationʼ. Or perhaps you are familiar with the 10,000 hour rule, which gives a guideline for how many hours a person has to put in, any person, in order to attain a state of mastery.

For the runners, love carries them along rock-strewn trails through forests, up mountains, through creeks, and beyond the point of quitting. Love gives them a lightness in the body mixed with a pertinacious mindset that qualifies as a sort of genius mix for distance running. For mathematicians, love of this mysterious and expansive subject carries them through metaphorical forests and mountains, past obstacles, and deeper into a world that is as beautiful as it is surprising. Mathematical geniuses astound us with their penetrative insights, yes. But also, they work harder because they love it so much.

Math is where they prefer to spend their time.

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