Discovering the Hidden Value of Math
- Monday, June 28, 2010
"Mathematics is food for the brain," says math professor Dr. Arthur Benjamin. "It helps you think precisely, decisively, and creatively and helps you look at the world from multiple perspectives . . . . [It's] a new way to experience beauty—in the form of a surprising pattern or an elegant logical argument."1 A powerful description, but what if your family struggles with math? How do you teach math in a way that helps your children catch that vision?
The Myth: You Will Use This in Real life
I recently spoke with a mom who often pleads with her kids to study math, telling them they will need it later in life. Her mathematically frustrated offspring are skeptical. She wonders why so many children say: "I don't need to learn this. I am not going to be an engineer anyway, so why bother?" My response was: "Their young minds can't find a tangible, long-term benefit. Short-term fun and ease is much more appealing." For that same reason, the "you'll use this someday" argument can be exhausting and ineffective. It may even sabotage your efforts if your children recognize it as a lukewarm truth.
Before my Inbox fills up with flaming emails, let me elaborate. I took Advanced Placement Calculus in high school, college-level Math Theory, and graduate-level Statistics. As an adult, I have many responsibilities, yet I use almost none of that knowledge now. I am not atypical. On a daily basis, most people primarily use the four basic functions of math: addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. Even at work, most professionals are not steeped in algebraic equations daily. Computers do the heavy lifting, and kids know that. Using their future prospects as motivation for completing their algebra assignment doesn't convince them. You need to help your children override here-and-now thinking, but how?
The Real Secret of Math
In his insightful book, The Equation for Excellence: How to Make Your Child Excel in Math, Arvin Vohra reveals a simple, yet powerful, concept that most people overlook. In a nutshell, he points out that you don't do math because you are smart; you do math because it makes you smarter.2 Mathematical thinking builds the brain, just like weight-training builds the muscles. Mental discipline and clear thinking are required to master mathematical concepts. Both will make your children better at whatever they love. The best part is, whether they love art, Bible study, building, logic, or debate, their brains are being better equipped in the here and now.
Math is about making connections and seeing patterns. The concrete and abstract thinking required by math builds the brain's muscles, which in turn prepares you for other academic pursuits. The study of math is actually a springboard to increasing overall intelligence!
We all know that Leonardo da Vinci was a gifted artist. What most people don't realize is that he was also a brilliant mathematician. Da Vinci used the concept of "connessione," or connectedness, to create notebooks filled with ideas, formulas, and theories that were very advanced for his time.3 The secret recipe to math appreciation involves the internal motivation to increase intelligence rather than the external motivation of using it someday. Instead of telling your kids that they will need geometry if they decide to become an engineer, tell them that math will make them a better fill-in-the-blank (artist, football player, writer) right now.
How Math Builds the Brain
How does math do this? Math trains the brain to see connections and builds the neural pathways that make the brain stronger for all other things. These pathways serve as building blocks for myriad interests and subjects by:
• Creating the basis for systemic thinking.
• Developing the ability to analyze and solve problems.
• Stretching the mind to work on unfamiliar tasks with confidence.
• Developing the sequencing skills critical to arriving at accurate results or logical conclusions.
• Promoting caution and care in thinking by deciphering complex math problems to arrive at an accurate answer.
• Learning through the trial and error to integrate different principles to arrive at a logical conclusion.
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