Homeschooling Corner: A Mathematician’s Lament, by Paul Lockhart

Paul Lockhart’s A Mathematician’s Lament: How School Cheats us of our Most Fascinating and Imaginative Artform is a short but valuable book, easily finished in an afternoon.

Lockhart’s basic take is that most of us have math backwards. We approach (and thus teach) it as useful but not fun–something to be slogged through, memorized, and then avoided as much as possible. By contrast, Lockhart sees math as more fun than useful.

I do not mean that Lockhart denies the utility of balancing your checkbook or calculating how much power your electrical grid can handle, but most of the math actual mathematicians do isn’t practical. They do it because they enjoy it; they love making patterns with numbers and shapes. Just because paint has a very practical use in covering houses doesn’t mean we shouldn’t encourage kids to enjoy painting pictures; similarly, Lockhart wants kids to see mathematics as fun.

But wait, you say, what if this loosey-goosey, free-form, new math approach results in kids who spend a lot of time trying to re-derive pi from first principles but never really learning algebra? Lockhart would probably counter that most kids never truly master algebra anyway, so why make them hate it in the process? Should we only let kids who can paint like the Masters take art class?

If you and your kids already enjoy math, Lockhart may just reinforce what you already know, but if you’re struggling or math is a bore and a chore, Lockhart’s perspective may be just what you need to turn things around and make math fun.

For example: There are multiple ways to group the numbers during double-digit multiplication, all equally “correct”; the method you chose is generally influenced by things like your familiarity with double-digit multiplication and the difficulty of the problem. When I observed one of my kids making errors in multiplication because of incorrect regrouping, I showed them how to use a more expanded way of writing out the numbers to make the math clearer–promptly eliciting protests that I was “doing it wrong.” Inspired by Lockhart, I explained that “There is no one way to do math. Math is the art of figuring out answers, and there are many ways to get from here to there.” Learning how to use a particular approach—“Put the numbers here, here, and here and then add them”–is useful, but should not be elevated above using whatever approach best helps the child understand the numbers and calculate the correct answers.

The only difficulty with Lockhart’s approach is figuring out what to actually do when you sit down at the kitchen table with your kids, pencil and paper in hand. The book has a couple of sample lessons but isn’t a full k-12 curriculum. It’s easy to say, “I’m going to do a free-form curriculum that requires going to the library every day and uses every experience as a learning opportunity,” and rather harder to actually do it. With a set curriculum, you at least know, “Here’s what we’re going to do today.”

My own personal philosophy is that school time should be about 50% formal instruction and 50% open-ended exploration. Kids need someone to explain how the alphabet works and what these funny symbols on the math worksheet mean; they also need time to read fun books and play with numbers. They should memorize their times tables, but a good game can make times tables fun. In short, I think kids should have both a formal, straightforward curriculum or set of workbooks (I have not read enough math textbooks to recommend any particular ones,) and a set of math enrichment activities, like tangrams, pattern blocks, reading about Penrose the Mathematical Cat, or watching Numberphile on YouTube.

(Speaking of Penrose, I thought the chapter on binary went right over my kids’ heads, but yesterday they returned all of their answers in math class in binary, so I guess they picked up more than I gave them credit for.)

YouCubed.org is an interesting website I recently discovered. So far we’ve only done two of the activities, but they were cute and I suspect the website will make a useful addition to our lessons. If you’ve used it, I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.

That’s all for now. Happy learning!