Play is where love begins

April 13, 2015

I recently wrote a piece for the New York Times Numberplay blog on what we do to help people fall in love with math. I thought I’d include it here.

No matter whom we work with, our initial goal is for them to have an authentic, mathematical experience; that is the first step to helping anyone — teachers, students, parents, kids, you name it — develop a love for math. The question then becomes, what does authentic mathematics look like, and how can you get people to experience it, especially if they’ve been turned off from the subject?

The answer is play. Play is the engine of learning, and our minds are wired to play with mathematics. When people are able to play with mathematics, they learn more profoundly and expertly than they would otherwise. The enemy of play is fear, and insistence that others do things your way, the “right” way. If you share mathematics as something you love, a gift you and everyone else gets to play with, and have the discipline to reserve judgment, what you end up seeing is that people of all ages will quickly take up the invitation to play with you, and soon they are doing math with a level of creativity, interest and rigor that you might have thought would be impossible.

All we need to do to open people up to mathematics then, is give them permission, and the right circumstances, to take ownership of their mathematical experience and begin playing. There are critical elements to provide:

A worthy mathematical question or problem, with a low barrier to entry and a high ceiling,
A safe atmosphere, free of judgment,
Time, and whatever encouragement and support is necessary to coax people into playing.

I think the Broken Calculator problem qualifies as the right kind of mathematical question, potentially, though working with teachers or students I usually change the question to: What numbers are possible to get on the calculator and what numbers are impossible? That way, people can mess around and get positive feedback. You made 12 on the calculator? Great! That tells us something new — what else is possible? That’s what I mean by a low barrier to entry. But the problem is designed to resist easy answers, too (unless you’ve worked on this kind of question before), so it is unlikely that anyone without training would be able to say, “Here’s the answer. Now what?”

I recently demoed a pared-down variation of the Broken Calculator problem in a third grade classroom (without square roots) as part of a teacher professional development partnership. I was worried that I’d have to sell the problem to the students, but the opposite was true: The moment the kids saw that they were in control of how they approached the question, they couldn’t get enough. Kids know how to play.

In the end, play really is the magic ingredient. Einstein called play the highest form of research; happily, play is also the best way to win anyone over to math. Play is where love begins.

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