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Taking the Worry Out of Math

by Greg Tang

This creative educator and successful author of many books, including the bestselling The Grapes of Math, shares his vision for mathematics education.

I don’t consider myself a writer. I’m a math guy. Just knowing I have to write this article makes me uneasy, which is why I’ve been putting it off for the past three months. But I imagine what I’m feeling is similar to how many people feel about math. And that’s what I hope to change. My goal is to take the worry out of math and make it fun again.

Whenever I visit a school, one of the first questions I ask students is “how many of you like math?” In kindergarten and first grade, virtually every student raises his or her hand excitedly and says, “I do, I love it!” In second grade, students are still very enthusiastic and almost every hand goes up. By third and fourth grade, however, things begin to change. Only about two-thirds of the students raise their hands, and by eighth grade, the only kids with their hands up are the ones like me wearing glasses.

What this tells me is that at one time we all like math, but something happens to change our feelings. Not coincidentally, I believe the problem starts about the same time we begin focusing on computational skills in school. Math quickly becomes a jumble of rote methods and mechanical procedures with little understanding or intuition. In trying to help kids, we somehow lose sight of what makes math fun in the first place––the challenge and satisfaction of solving problems with cleverness and common sense.

Several years ago, I was helping in my daughter’s kindergarten class when the teacher handed me a basket of dominoes and asked, “Is there something interesting we can do with these?” I immediately noticed that every white dot on the dominoes had a pencil mark, which meant kids were counting them one at a time instead of simply adding up the dots. While I didn’t have an answer to the question, at least I had an idea for teaching math.

It struck me then that working with groupings of dots would be a great way to teach arithmetic. Visual groupings represent quantities directly, whereas numbers are an abstraction that can interfere with learning. Instead of dots, I thought about objects kids would like: seashells, snowflakes, acorns, and bugs––lots of bugs! I began designing graphical problems that would teach kids to add quickly and accurately by forming clever groupings, and I wrote poems to make the problems more entertaining. My goal was to teach computational and problem solving skills at the same time, and to encourage a love for both reading and math.

At this point, I began thinking for the first time about publishing a book. This was quite a breakthrough for a math guy like me. I sent several manuscripts off to New York, and about a year later my first book, The Grapes of Math, was published. Math For All Seasons and The Best of Times followed. I’m really looking forward to next year, when Math Appeal, the sequel to my first book, will be released, followed by Math-terpieces, a book that combines math and art history, and Math Fables, which teaches young children to think about numbers in creative ways.

In writing books, my goal is to help kids from counting all the way through calculus. I hope to develop new methods of teaching math that focus on intuition and understanding, not mindless repetition and memorization. I’m also working to develop effective ways of communicating math to children through language and art. If we want kids to be good in math, we’ve got to make it engaging, enlightening, even entertaining. I believe it’s possible to take the worry out of math and make it fun again. Now if someone would only do the same for writing!

Permission to reprint "Taking the Worry Out of Math" by Greg Tang (Vol. 12, No. 2) granted by the author and by Book Links: Connecting Books, Libraries, and Classrooms, published by the American Library Association.

About the Author:

Greg Tang earned B.A. and M.A. degrees in Economics from Harvard, and later earned an M.A. degree in Math Education from New York University. He is certified as a middle school and high school math teacher. He has been a successful business professional as well as a teacher and author. His popular books for children include The Grapes of Math. His goal is to develop a more intuitive approach to teaching math, one that combines problem-solving and arithmetic and integrates math with language and art. In addition to his books, he is working to develop teaching materials including workbooks, math games, and instructional videos. For enjoyment, Greg plays tennis, hockey and guitar with his three kids in Belmont, Massachusetts.

Growing Together Family Learning Newsletter, Vol. 1, No. 1, page 10

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