Nov 25, 2010

Math and Thanksgiving

One of the failure stories...

When I was in 2nd grade, I failed every math test I took.

I feel we need to take a moment to discuss what this meant: Many students believe that "failure" is anything lower than what they want (usually an A). By definition, failing a test is getting less than 60% correct.

I was scoring 4 out of 100 questions correct on many of my tests. Yes, that's 4%. I rationalized to my parents, that it wasn't that bad because I only answered 8 questions.

As two physics and math double majors themselves, my parents were not appeased by a performance of 50%. They quickly moved into action: I recall parent-teacher conferences, some heated discussions about whether a timed test was a good measure of mathematical ability, some comments about how I still used my fingers and whether that was an indication of ability... but it still came down to the fact that no matter how it was sliced, I was failing math. Truly an emergency in my family.

To their credit, my parents approached the problem in a very systematic manner. They always shared this philosophy with other parents who marveled at my mathematical abilities later in life. They explained that if they had been sports parents, the process would have been the same:

1. First, they made sure I actually knew how to add and subtract. In the sports world, this would be equivalent to making sure I knew how to put the basketball in a basket, for example.

2. Once they knew I knew how to do the math, they worked on my ability to be fast and accurate. This was done through practice. In the sports world, this would have been involved in practicing making baskets in the back yard, at the park, or even with the wastebasket. The venue, however, required some figuring out:
  • First, they gave me flash cards, but I had to do them by myself because if someone were doing them with me, I stressed about what they thought of me
  • Next, I was given worksheets, but that was only good after I got my speed up. It was boring as a means of practicing for practice's sake.
  • Finally, they programmed a calculator to give me random problems (this was before personal computers). This turned out to be the magic solution for me. Armed with my pocket calculator, I practiced math in the car, waiting in line, and even before church started. The calculator said "good" to me (in very old-techie text) and gave me another problem. If I got it wrong, it showed me the answer and gave me another problem again. It never judged me and never got bored.
3. Then, they made my "game" more professional. They didn't tell me that I couldn't use my fingers; they just told me that I needed to still do it quickly and correctly and that I needed to make sure the teacher never saw me using them. In the sports world, this would be the little rituals individuals do to reassure them, but they don't let others know, for no other reason that they are personal.
    My parents are tricky: They made sure that math was a continual part of my life. In fact, that figured out ways to make it so that math would give me an edge. Their most popular tactic was to use games to keep my math skills sharp. In fact, even holidays like Thanksgiving would be guaranteed hours of practice.

    Since my parents were new immigrants, Thanksgiving needed to be introduced to our family by neighbors. They were big Yahtzee fans so playing the game became a tradition. Fast adding, figuring out how much I needed for the "bonus", and getting a feel for that more advanced concept of probability were all the by-products of our Thanksgiving ritual.

    The value of practice was one of the best lessons I learned from the event. Years later, my father reminded me to use this strategy with my SATs. I foolishly replied, "It's measuring my aptitude; what good would practice do? Isn't that cheating?" The look he shot me was reminiscent of the look he gave me when he gave me the programmed calculator. It was one that said, "Do now; you can thank me later."

    He was right; parents usually are. My perfect SAT math score gave no indication that I had struggled with math in the past and was yet another example of how practice is a necessary part of mastery.

    Something to think about this holiday...

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