Saturday, May 13, 2017

Learning Math requires Learning to Learn

I think a lot about math, which is a little strange because I don't consider myself "good at math," and my career has largely been about the English language and literature. However, I am the father of an incredibly talented math student, and my high school has a nationally-reknowned math team. I'm also a school administrator and GT Coordinator, and as an aspect of that job I observe a fair number of math classes, I read a lot about math curriculum/standards/sequencing, and I discuss the issue of math acceleration for many students. As a result, I'd like to understand math more, and thus I was intrigued by a profile in the Wall Street Journal about Barbara Oakley, a military officer and scholar who never considered herself good at math, yet has written two books about learning math.

The profile on Oakley (which can be difficult to access if you don't subscribe - a situation the WSJ should fix by allowing easier paid access to single articles) focused on how "A Polymath Mastered Math - And so Can You." That's an intriguing promise, the likes of which has been promised by far too many books and math centers and tutoring programs. Oakley's views and ideas, however, represent something a bit different to me. Her career path and her acquiring of strong math skills and insight came later in life, and the insight she gleaned from that process has fueled two books about learning math. Oakley's first - A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even if you Flunked Algebra) - describes her own process for math discovery and some valid criticism, as well as some praise, about how American educators teach math and build skills. The balance of sequencing and repetition with the needs of cultivating long-term understanding is at the heart of the discussion.

I have not read Oakley's book yet, but I plan to as part of my goal to continue learning and not simply accept that there are "things I'm not good at."  That pessimistic point of view, especially in terms of schooling, is addressed in Oakley's new book - Mindshift: Break Through Obstacles to Learning and Discover Your Hidden Potential - about the latest neuroscience behind brain elasticisty and the process of learning. While I am always skeptical about the feel-good, self-help message of so many people promising paths to "unleashing our potential," I am intrigued by Oakley's story, and I am wondering how effectively these ideas might be adapted to general pedagogy and practice in schools, especially for struggling learners and GT kids who aren't so adept at "doing school."

A lot to think about here for an old English teacher. But also a lot to realize about The Power of Mathematical Thinking. 


Darren said...

Just to give a "mathematical perspective" on things, I recommend How The Other Half Thinks by Sherman Stein.

mmazenko said...

Cool. Thanks for the rec.