Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Math is Not about Numbers

Today, I came across an article today in Education Week entitled "Researchers Probe Causes of Math Anxiety."  It was a decent article.  There were a few insights I found interesting.

When I finished the article, I read the comments.  Michael P. Goldenberg, a math coach in Ann Arbor, Michigan said this:
The way most US teachers present the subject in K-12, it's about only or primarily the following: calculation, arithmetic, and speed (with accuracy, of course). None of those things are particularly what mathematicians deal with. No mathematician is judged by speed of calculations - arithmetic or otherwise. Calculation may not even be a particular strength of a professional mathematician. Mathematicians by and large deal with abstractions, patterns, connections. Of course, some deal with applications of mathematics to sciences and engineering and other "real world" problems and situations. But when it comes to pure calculation, it's hard to beat a computer for speed and accuracy. What the computer won't give is insight, leaps of heuristic thinking that connects seemingly unrelated ideas in two or more areas of mathematics, the recognition of underlying structural similarities, etc. Computers don't think.
I had been thinking of writing a post entitled "Math is Not about Numbers" for a while.  I actually started this post a week ago, and saved it as a half-completed draft.  I don't know, however, that I can say it any better than Michael P. Goldenberg did. 

In a few years all of my fifth grade students will be using a calculator and/or computer to do their calculations.  I refuse to spend an entire school year teaching them procedures to calculate.  I'm going to spend the majority of the time in my math classes teaching them to make connections, recognize patterns, and make predictions.  I'm going to teach them to do what computers can't - think.  I'm going to teach them math.