Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Week 9: On Tradition Versus Nostalgia

He's ready. 

Last week, Billy finished all 100 of the single-digit addition flashcards in under 8 minutes! I was so proud of him! He's discovered the 9 trick on his own. The 9 trick, like any algorithm, doesn't translate into prose very well, but it goes something like this:
9 trick--Any number plus 9 is equal to that number minus 1 plus 10.
Billy still relies on his fingers for 7+6, 7+8, and 6+8, but hey, so do I. And what?

So I think he's ready. I've decided to hold off on drilling single-digit subtraction problems, in favor of teaching him multiplication first. My reasons for this deviation from plan are twofold:
First, I see this as a chance to build Billy's mathematical ego, which has suffered from a state of perpetual bruising over the last year. I want him to feel confident in class. I want him to feel that sense of achievement and ego-building self-satisfaction that will stimulate the pleasure centers of his brain, creating a positive feedback loop that makes math more exciting for social reasons (read: educated elite), as opposed to purely economic reasons (read: I need to learn math to get a job).
Second, multiplication naturally follows addition, since both are simply variations on a single theme: summation.  2 x 5 is merely a superficial and arbitrary representation, a mask that conceals a deeper meaning. Peeling away that mask reveals the expression 2 + 2 + 2 + 2 + 2, a lengthy but simple summation.  
2 x 5 = 2 + 2 + 2 + 2 + 2 = 10

This long, unwieldy mathematical equation is the truth behind 2 x 5, a truth that is easily forgotten once we commit 2 x 5 = 10 to ritual memory.

But none of that is really important, unless you're trying to teach someone what multiplication is, conceptually. It is easy to teach children to memorize 2 x 5 = 10, using your authority as a teacher to force them to accept this at face value. It is harder to teach children what 2 x 5 really means.

It is easy to hide behind the shield of authoritarianism, because then you never have to explain why--only how. 

Authoritarianism works by creating a legion of machines that work for the sake of work, oblivious to the goal, oblivious to what it all means. Should the man behind the machine be lost, the machine will, out of ignorance, out of nostalgia, continue to function, even as it has no function. Ignorant of purpose, slave to ritual and form, its existence--meaningless.

They say that to teach is to know. I say that to teach function, practice form, and be able to explain the distinction--that is when you truly know.

Are we still talking about math here?


  1. I just wanted to say that I really enjoyed reading this entire blog, and I wish you the best in your educational pursuits. Everyone deserves to have a really great teacher in their life and I'm so glad that you're choosing to make a difference (for only $20-50 an hour)