The Act of Learning Math

What is learning math all about? What’s the basic idea we need to help our children be successful in math? What’s the secret to math ability?

In the United States, most people, most teachers, most students, believe that learning math is about developing understanding of certain concepts of principles.

There is a pervasive belief that a certain type of innate math ability, the much desired trait of “Being Good at Learning Math,” is the key to success. And the lack of it is the cause of frustration and failure in this subject.

But nothing could be farther from the truth.

Just Like Riding a Bike
Think of teaching a child to ride a bike. What are the conditions for success? There are three.

First, the child needs to have already mastered a set of motor skills that are prerequisite to riding the bike. He or she needs to be able to walk and run already, so that the strength and endurance to turn the peddles are in place. He or she needs the gross motor coordination to hold the handles tight, peddle, and turn the head a bit, all at the same time. He or she needs enough sense of balance so that the potential to stay up is there. So, we need prerequisite skills.

math contest

Second, we need developmental readiness. There’s a point in maturity when the child is ready and able to put it together to make the step of taking off the training wheels.

Third, we need some kind of technique to help the child to get going. An approach that will make it relatively easy to get started. A system that will make failure less likely. Like taking the child to an open level place without cars. Like running along holding the back of the bike, gradually letting go for longer and longer. Like keeping up the words of encouragement.

What about the screaming, the tears, the spending weeks or months over it? Probably the child simply wasn’t ready for it. It’s like picking cherries: when they’re ready, they come right off in your hand. If you have to pull hard, it’s because they’re not ready yet.

But What About Natural Math Ability?
What about natural ability? OK, a very coordinated child might learn very young. Might teach himself. Who knows? Think you can look at a bunch of ten year olds, twenty year olds, thirty year olds … and tell who learnt to ride at four or five or six?

I doubt it.

With unusual talent, the child can learn faster, easier, a bit younger. But none of this is likely to matter much in the long run.

With the developed skills in place and an OK teaching technique, really almost anyone can learn to ride.

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