2011-05-14

Math Anxiety

Since a very young age, I can remember being interested in math and science, but feeling like I knew next to nothing about them and wondering if I ever would. When I went to university, many of my classmates' folks were professors or scientists, too, and some of them had been solving science problems since age two or so. I envied them, because school was just the next step in a fun little game they had played since early childhood. Now that I'm a parent myself, I hope I can do something similar for my son Hugo while he is still young. That is my idea, the only question is how to do it.
My dad told me how as a lad he built an aeroplane-shaped weather vane with two propellers that could spin, and fastened it to a fence post on the old farm. One windy day, with those propellers a-spinning as just as fast as can be, my dad wondered to my granddad why the plane couldn't just take off and fly away. Granddad replied that it just couldn't. Maybe he was at a loss to explain, or perhaps he didn't really know why himself, but that's all he said, anyway. My dad since went on to study civil engineering, and now understands why the plane couldn't've taken off for himself.
As a child of the early seventies, fonts of wisdom such as Sesame Street, Schoolhouse Rock, and The Electric Company fell short of slaking my thirst for knowledge. The Sesame Street graduate can count to twenty, but like some pre-adolescent blackjack player, is stuck on the verge of twenty-one. My name for forty at the time was "twenty-twenty" (thirty was "twenty-ten") but this seemed silly and wrong so I gave it up in the hope that someday I would just know better.
I played the swine before whom pearls such as the number π and formulae like E = mc2 were cast -- magical sutras whose meaning I understood but a little and whose use not at all. I was a young "mathematics groupie" and longed to satisfy my vague yearnings. I wrote 0 + 0 = 1 on a paper and proudly showed it to my parents. Like my granddad before, they just said flatly that it was wrong but offered no explanation, and I remained confused and unsatisfied. The numbers jealously guarded their shroud of mystery. Later, my dad gave me a little olive-green book promisingly entitled A Manual of Useful Data. Further armed with the gift of a Sharp scientific calculator, I spent hours doing calculations I dreamed up based on the data and formulae in the book.
Finally, I went to a university summer course near the end of high school and was introduced to calculus, and when I came back my dad exclaimed, "Now I finally have someone to tell this joke to!" and wrote out symbolically: integral with respect to CABIN of one over CABIN equals what? And yes, faithful reader, my first calculus teacher had done his job well enough and with only slightly trembling fingers I held up my end of the equation, so to speak, with the answer: LOG CABIN. My dad's 16-year-long vigil had not been in vain.
I believe it was Einstein (or Heisenberg) who said, "You never really understand the new theories, you just get used to them," so I reckon the same must be true for kids -- expose them to things that would interest an adult, answer their questions as you would an adult, and maybe it will sink in. So far, this has worked, and Hugo knows a lot more about numbers than I did when I was twice his age. True, I know more, but if Einstein and Heisenberg had the humility to admit that they didn't fully understand what they were doing, I should, too. I have to admit that a professional mathematician might cringe at some of the ways I try to use numbers, like zero and imaginary numbers, for instance, so am I on a different, more adult, level from Hugo, or just further along the same path?
Some parenting advice I liked was that having a kid is like hanging out with a friend on an acid trip that lasts for about ten years. For example, when he says that C plus D equal G, rather than just ignore him or tell him to stop talking nonsense, I try to make sense of it and I ask him what E plus G would be. When he tells me M, I recognize that he is actually performing base 26 addition using the alphabet as a number line (he has also done this with the stations on the Toyoko line, by the way). I also try to talk on his level, like when he asked me why yellow orange juice in a blue straw turns the straw green, which is really a question about quantum physics, I used the world of Thomas the Tank Engine to explain, which is perhaps another story in itself. For videos and games, I try to get things that also interest me because if he only watches "kiddie" stuff that I don't watch, I'll never know how stimulating it really is, plus I can't talk with him about it.
I don't pretend to know what I'm doing or what the final result will be or which of the things my wife and I have tried have been effective or not. But when he says something clever or seems to get something I've taught him, I tell him what a little genius he is and he now seems to believe it himself. I suppose, as in most fields of human endeavor, self-confidence is most of the battle.
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