I’ve always been good at math.
I mean, I was a girl who went through school primarily in the 20th century, so any skills I had were rarely praised, and I didn’t recognize them in myself. I got mad credit from my teachers for my language and musical skills. Probably too much for the musical skills, honestly.
But math was always something I enjoyed. It felt like it was related to linguistics; the same skills I used to craft an argumentative essay or master a song on an instrument could be applied to mathematical theory, and there was something so deeply satisfying in that.
I didn’t realize just how good I was at math until I attended college as a nontraditional student. I cared about my education in a way I never had before. Didn’t give a damn about looking cool. I gave a damn about maintaining my 4.0 GPA so I could keep all my scholarships.
With this newfound freedom, I pushed my teachers. Particularly my math teacher. To his credit, he loved every moment of the challenge. In a room full of 18-year-olds who do still care about looking cool and don’t particularly care about the quadratic equation, I think I was a much-needed boredom buster.
Every time he would expand a problem and show us how to solve, I’d ask him the same question:
The numbers on the board were nice, and I knew how to follow the pattern, but I wanted to understand the theory behind every last equation. I knew that if I understood the reasoning behind the process, I could double check my numbers and get the answer right every time.
My obnoxiousness worked. After I took down my walls, I scored over 100% on every test. Not because I’m some genius.
I’m definitely not.
But because I understood the process all the way from initial problem to end solution.
Negative Punishment and Schooling at Home
My kids have been home from school, like most kids in this country. I’m planning on it being for at least the rest of this school year, though Pennsylvania has only officially cancelled until halfway through April so far.
My kids are super lucky in that their district has mechanisms set up to educate them at home. This is a dry run; we were supposed to practice and then implement this for the first time this year during snow days. It was a light winter. That never quite happened.
It’s been bumpy.
Last week, one of my kids brought an app to me. They were really upset.
I listened and messed around with the app to see what had them so undone. It turns out, this app was using a point system that used positive reinforcement when a student completed a problem correctly with no assistance. Great.
But then it also used negative punishment if they did need to expand the problem. To see the theory. To ask:
Without getting too much into it, negative punishment is rarely an effective way to educate — at least over the long-term.
This isn’t the teacher’s fault, to be clear. My kids are very lucky to have absolutely phenomenal educators supporting them. This is a reward game usually. She hadn’t had a chance to teach the kids the theory of the particular lesson my child had picked out.
What is math?
I was pretty frustrated with the app, too. For punishing my kid when they needed to understand not only what the answer was, but how they got to that answer.
I found myself explaining to my child that math isn’t about having all the numbers memorized. Having the basics pulled up for instant recall makes things go faster, sure, but the important thing we’re trying to learn with math is problem solving.
If we don’t know the answer, is there another way we can find it? What are the numbers actually asking of us? Theoretically? Is there another way we can solve the problem? To find a solution that will help us explain the world around us in a way that allows us to move forward?
It was all more age-appropriate than that, but equally grand.
Solving Our Problems
My kid still gets frustrated with the app. But now they understand they’re not bad at math; this particular app is bad at teaching. They’re working through the theory, and asking for explanations when they need them. Then generalizing that explanation to similar math problems with different numbers.
Our conversation happened at a time where I’m overwhelmed. The change is a lot, and we’re under pretty strict restrictions here in Allegheny County. I’m grateful our governor is taking leadership and saving as many lives as he can. I’m infuriated that the President has slowed down testing efforts and gotten us to this point. We have a known outbreak and the anecdotes from the people I know alone pin us at waiting 7+ days for test results in this region.
Death is knocking every door. And in too many cases, about to slither its way inside.
I’m not going to understand why with this one. There is no reason. The virus only wants to survive, just like we do. The extent it affected our country absolutely could have been helped. But now that our leadership has put us in this dark situation, we can only solve the problems in front of us before we head to the polls.
I, like most everyone else, have lost access to the physical community that makes my life possible over the course of the past week. There’s nothing that can be done about it. It’s not going back to the way it was any time soon.
I don’t know what the solution to our problems is going to end up being. But I do know that it’s there somewhere.
We’ve made an official schedule to help us ward off our anxiety and prevent boredom. I’m accepting that I’m going to have to do things that aren’t fair and are going to mess up what I had planned for my life in unpreventable ways.
Math’s greatest lesson.
But this is where we’re at, like it or not, and I just might be ready to take the greatest lesson math has taught me and apply it.
Math teaches lessons through personal finance, sure.
Balancing a budget does, in fact, include subtraction, addition and a little bit of division and multiplication if you get all fancy with that spreadsheet.
But the greatest lesson mathematics can teach us is not to give up. To walk away when we feel frustrated and come back with fresh eyes. To know that there is a solution; we just have to get creative and believe in our own capabilities enough to make it happen.
The answer isn’t always going to be what we want it to be. And we have to remember — especially in our society — that behind the death tolls and unemployment numbers and educational metrics are real, human lives we have a collective moral obligation to protect without infringing upon individual Constitutional Rights.
These are hard problems in dark times. But we can solve hard problems. We can do hard things. We can turn our individual and collective failures and struggles into our greatest strengths.
I’m not sure of any of the concrete solutions just yet, other than the ones referenced on this resource page that may help you depending on your life circumstances.
But I’ll let you know as I find more of them. Share yours with me, too, okay?
This is one test where it’s totally cool to look at each other’s papers.