Math Is Everything

School has begun almost everywhere now, and once again we in the education profession are looking ahead to another year, hoping to do everything a little bit better than last year and the year before that.

Doing what we do better than before is the theme for the entire series of posts in The Unrealized Maine Classroom.  

In a previous post, I made a case for not focusing so intensely on math and reading, but rather looking at academics with a more holistic approach. There is math and reading in all subjects, including the arts, and those subjects can be the most meaningful and joyful learning experiences for young people.  Today I want to look at this topic from a slightly different angle.  

Very few of us find any kind of joy in the act of reading for the sake of reading alone; we like to read about things that interest us.  In order to be able to do that thoroughly and efficiently, we devote a lot of our learning to the building blocks of language fluency, including basic decoding, word recognition, phonemic awareness, pronunciation, comprehension, as well as grammar and spelling.  We practice all these things at an early age so we can understand and love what we read.  When that happens, entire universes of possibilities become accessible to our imaginations.  

Many Americans who can read actually love reading, but the same is not true about mathematics.  I suspect most Americans who can do math, don’t take a particular liking to it.  

Notice the difference between the first clauses of both those last two sentences. Many Americans who can read… and Most Americans who can DO math… Huh! How about that?!  Math and reading are not counterparts, cousins, connected puzzle pieces, or even opposites it turns out.  Reading is a gerund derived from a verb, and math is a nickname for a longer noun, mathematics.  

Google brings me to a nice definition for mathematics: The abstract science of number, quantity and space.  In other words, math is a collection of things that includes calculating, estimating, counting, classifying, grouping, measuring, simplifying, symbolizing, organizing, diagramming, graphing, proofing, justifying, ratifying, and qualifying, among many, many other gerunds.  But math is also about predicting, solving problems, and creating.  So Google’s definition is largely inadequate.  Math is hard to define.

But ask the average guy or gal in the street, and math is “adding and subtracting and stuff,” or, “you know, numbers and stuff.”  Most people don’t grow up to be professional mathematicians or think of themselves as mathematicians.  

An argument can be made that math isn’t anything at all, just a made up category of sub-disciplines that somehow seem necessary to understand the universe and tackle your taxes.  But still, we continue to publish textbooks for elementary students and label them: “Math.”  We set aside anywhere from 45 to 90 minutes each day in public schools for studying “math.”  A typical third grade curriculum goes all over the place in an attempt to provide a comprehensive survey of “math” topics: the four operations, grouping, fractions, concepts of mass, volume, liquid volume, money management, spatial measurement, time measurement, classification of two and three dimensional shapes and other geometric themes, even data analysis. Then, at the end of third grade, a student gets a “math” grade for the year.  It is no wonder so many Americans have so little confidence in “math.”

An argument can also be made that math is everything.  And I’m not talking about those Math Is Everywhere posters your teacher used to hang in the classroom– you know, the one with the child pointing up at a suspension bridge, the contractor with the pencil behind his ear, smiling broadly as he looks at an architect’s plans, and the air force flight controller grinning while she looks at trajectories and flight data charts.  I mean math is everything in the way that everything is made up of matter, and everything is connected to everything else.  

The trends in math education are all about problem solving, and I think we’re on the right track.  Problem solving! That’s really what should be at the core of all elementary and secondary mathematics.  If reading and writing are the simple verbs that, through practicing all those foundational language skills, allow us to become aware of the world so we can celebrate it, than problem solving is another branch of language manipulation, just like reading and writing.  In fact, reading, writing and problem solving are all intertwined with each other.  In order to become great problem solvers, we have to communicate with the languages of mathematics in concert with our native language, be it English, French, Spanish, German, Arabic, Mandarin, Hindi, Bantu, Swahili or other.  

It’s time we begin to present mathematics to our students as something more, or other, than the tiny, disciplinary micro-category of academics we have reduced it to over the years in public education.  We would never assign our literacy students books full of random, meaningless paragraphs that are not connected to the human experience in any way.  We want them to love reading, so we give them books that tell stories about adventures and heartbreak and history and space travel and animals.  We have them read about things that really happen on earth, and some things that are so wonderful and fantastic they can only happen in another universe. We want them to love reading, because to us, reading is everything, and it opens doors to understanding the world and beyond.  

We also want the future generations to love problem solving, and devote themselves to the foundational knowledge and understanding that are prerequisites for great problem solving (like we do for literacy).  

We want the problem solvers of the future to scoff at unfair prices, to dismiss a politician’s bizarre statistic, to recognize an unrealistic prediction without batting an eyelash.  We want the problem solvers of the future to invent great solutions, to learn from historic mistakes, and to understand, love and respect science.  

Here’s to the possibilities that come with a new school year, and to great reading, writing and problem solving.

James Tatum Gale

About James Tatum Gale

I have been a teacher in Maine schools for twelve years, and a writer and musician since childhood. I acquired a Master's degree in Teaching from USM, and a Certificate in Math Leadership from UMF. My undergraduate degree is in Philosophy with a concentration in Comparative Religion from the University of Maine (1994). I live with my wife, Erin, and my dog, Sally, in Bowdoinham.