Monday, May 16, 2022

Fear And Loathing

Do you ever sit down and do a little math just for fun? 

I'm not talking about math with a purpose in mind, like figuring out a tip, but rather math just for the joy of calculating. I've asked early childhood educators this question for years and in a room of 100, there are never more than one or two who raise their hands. I suppose the percentage would go up in a roomful of mathematicians, but I think it's safe to assume that preschool teachers are probably fairly representative of the non-professional mathematics community, give or take a few percentage points.

Surveys of Americans find that math is the most disliked academic subject, with a good forty percent going so far as to say they "hate" math. Over ninety percent of us report some level of math anxiety. I'm not talking about mathematics proficiency here, just our attitudes about math.

We aren't born this way. As a preschool teacher I observe children engaged in mathematics play, which is to say, math for pleasure, at every turn. I'm not teaching them math, mind you, but every day, in every corner of our space, children are sorting, organizing, sequencing, and patterning. It might not look like math to those of us who have learned to fear and loath it, but that's because we were taught that math was all about solving equations rather than, as it is for real mathematicians, trying to understand real problems.

If we taught art the way we teach math -- drilling children on horizontal lines for a semester before moving on to vertical lines, then curved lines, then broken lines, until one day, years later, when they are in graduate school, we let them paint an actual painting -- we wouldn't be surprised if they grew to hate art. It's not an accident that when I ask for a show of hands of educators who have recently sat down and made art for fun, it's always well over half. I can't even find studies that ask Americans if we have art anxiety.

"The more convenient a method of instruction is for a teacher, the less convenient for the pupils. The only right way to teach is that which is satisfactory for the pupils." ~Leo Tolstoy

This is a problem right across standard education, but math teaching is where it's most pronounced. For reasons of convenience, we too often separate learning from purpose. But increasingly, it's not just math. When we break down, say, literacy into phonics, sight words, and diagramed sentences, we strip reading and writing of its purpose which is convenient for the teacher, especially if the goal is grading, ranking, test scores, and marching kids through a standardized curriculum, but a disaster if the goal is actually reading for pleasure and understanding.

Humans are driven by the desire to enjoy and understand. From the moment we open our eyes on the world, we strive, for fun, to make sense of it all, but since we are each born as one-of-a-kind creative geniuses, we will naturally choose our own methods and our own timelines. That is the beauty of humankind. This, however, simply isn't convenient for teachers who are charged with moving large groups of young people through pre-determined material on a pre-determined schedule without letting anyone "fall behind." 

This method of separating learning from purpose isn't supported by any science, except, perhaps, when it comes to crowd control, which again, is about convenience. If children can be made to sit silently facing forward, if they can be made to listen instead of do, if they can be made to attend to the broken up parts of their world instead of engaging in the joyful process of understanding, then what they will mostly learn is fear and loathing. That is always the lesson of convenience.


If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 
"Ready for a book that makes you want to underline and highlight? One that makes you draw arrows and write 'THIS!!!!!' in the margin? Then you are in for a treat." ~Lisa Murphy, M.Ed., author and Early Childhood Specialist, Ooey Gooey, Inc.

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