Thursday, January 12, 2006
Back to your Regularly Scheduled Program
At the UBC seminar I mentioned yesterday, Dr. Marion Porath presented preliminary findings of her research* on how gifted kids think about learning - their own internal epistemology or theory of knowledge. I don't want to discuss it too much here, as the project is ongoing, but one thing that really stuck out was the difference in attitude to learning about math. Kids were much more focused on the drilling and memorization aspect of the subject than when learning about reading, which had a much greater ability to enthuse and inspire them.
My own response to this is tempered by the reading I've been doing lately about the teaching of mathematics to gifted kids. I made a huge discovery - what I think of, and was taught, as "Maths" in England, is only one tiny part of mathematics. I wasn't very good at school math, mainly because I couldn't see the point of it. Even then I had little patience for busy work.
Math teachers who write books about gifted math are quick to point out that math is everywhere, we use it every day, driving, or swimming in a crowded pool, or calculating when to leave for the movie theatre so we don't miss the previews. It's a logical language we can use to decode the world. Generally, I'm good at those things. I'm excellent at getting all the food on the dinner table at the same time. Apparently, this too is actually math! I'm good at math! I'm GOOD at math.
So what happened? Why didn't the fire light under me, in the same way it did about music or art or reading or geography? I suspect it was because I couldn't relate it to my life or my interests in any way, and the emphasis was on practice and repetition. I didn't see it as a tool to solve problems - I saw it as the problem, something to grind out to please a teacher. I feel cheated! I will now go and find some internet homework-type sites to help fill in the gaps in my knowledge so that I can begin to find the beauty and elegance that so entrances my mathematically gifted friends.
* if anyone can tell me what the clear plastic object in the wallpaper of this picture is, you will save me hours more of fruitless speculation. Thanks.
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Any kid can understand that basic arithmetic will be needed throughout life. At the same time, hardly anyone will ever need trig.
For me, the useful bits of more advanced math (statistics and cryptography, closely related) were the only ones I was willing to put in effort to learn beyond the point that acing tests required.
There is also a fundamental elegance to calculus that makes me lament that they begin teaching it to people so late. The hard part is the notation and the algebra. Differential calculus, taught graphically, would be suitable for advanced students in late elementary school or early high school. It would also make subsequent physics and chemistry work much more intuitive.
I might pick up a copy for me!