A Way To Teach Math

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I have always been interested in numbers, my father built wooden boats – so as a small boy in his shop, I learned to measure and calculate from helping him.  “I need two 40 inch pieces, better get an eight foot piece, the six won’t do it and I want to save the tens for later” Dad would explain. Math to me was never just a subject in school – it was a part of everyday life.  It is my contention this is the way it should be taught.  

It was that awkward time in the new relationship – taking the kids out for lunch at the local fast food joint.   “What to talk about with my young charges until the food comes?”  Interaction with children has never been my strong suite.  The lady at the counter had told me to take a number … and for this story I seem to remember it was 27.  Just to make conversation I asked the youngest one “Twenty-seven is an interesting number, is it odd or even”  The boy looked at me and said in his unsure voice  “Odd”.  Of course I had the older brother confirm this fact then I asked him (the older one) if it was prime or not.  As I remember, he fumbled a bit before he figured out what I was getting at but soon he understood.  I gave them a few quarters for the video games and the food came.

This became a ritual … I was minding the kidletts every day that summer and our outings often included a fast lunch.  Over time the questions changed.  “What are the factors of this number?”  “Can you tell me what this number is, squared?”  The more complicated the question the longer it took to calculate, but they always realized that after the Q & A they could play the games.  No one was allowed to leave until the number was thoroughly discussed and the elder child always helped the younger to understand the procedures.  Oddly these children didn’t carry sliderules with them or those new fangled electronic calculators, hurrumph they didn’t have those gadgets when I was a boy … so the math was done in the head or on paper. (Actually, they did have sliderules when I was school.)  

One fine payday, their mother, the brood, and I all decided to go out for Pizza together.  Without thinking, after getting the number, the boys and I started our usual discussion.  Their Mom had an astonished look on her face, but she had been a Math honors student in high school so we had her figure the Square Root of the number.

A few minutes later, while the kids were murdering aliens and navigating mazes.  My girlfriend looked at me with a twinkle in her eye , “You know Bill, that was wonderful, its something their father would never have thought of doing.”  As I look back on it that was probably one of the greatest pieces of approval and praise I’ve ever received.  It was at that moment that I understood this old confirmed bachelor might be able to make family life work after all.

Years went by and I remember one of the last dinners we had as a group – the kids were in high school and one was looking at graduation.  “We are getting a 14 inch pizza, hmmm what an interesting  size.”  Looking at the youngest “How far is it around the edge of the pizza do you think – the circumference of a 14 inch circle?”  Then to his older brother  “We are paying $25.00 (Twenty-five dollars) for the whole pizza, how much does it cost for each of the eight slices?”  “Calculator?  It seems you didn’t bring one, too bad, nice GameBoy though.”  Finally, “Honey lets show them the way its done … price per square inch?”  

If I were to tell the secret of teaching math … it is to start young, make sure it is related to real world experiences, and always do it with praise and rewards.  Assign an importance to it, set the example of doing math as an easy passtime, never as a difficult chore.   As always the more practice the better.

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