Be a Mathematics Coach to Your Children (Part 1)

The ideas in this Blog came from an article written on 07/25/2014 for the NYT by Jordan Ellenberg, a professor of mathematics at the University of Wisconsin, and the author of the book “How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking.”

Professor Ellenberg began his article by asking the question many parents have asked him. How can I get my kids excited about mathematics? Then he presented an example of what you do not do. His example involves the child prodigy Norbert Weiner who got a Ph.D. from Harvard at the age of 18. Describing the process his father used to develop his mathematical skills, Norbert said, “He would begin the discussion in an easy, conversational tone. This lasted exactly until I made the first mathematical mistake. Then the gentle and loving father was replaced by the avenger of the blood. … Father was raging, I was weeping, and my mother did her best to defend me.”

If the above sounds familiar when helping your child with their math, the approach suggested by Ellenberg will be more successful and humane. So, how can we present mathematics in such a way that children can find it enjoyable?

In his article Ellenberg says, “I found an answer in something my 8-year-old son, C. J., likes even better than math: baseball. C. J. is a baseball fanatic. He lives and dies with the Milwaukee Brewers. He plays Little League with a fierce concentration I seldom see at home. And I’ve learned a lot about what kind of math parent I want to be from an unexpected source — his coaches. Baseball is a game. And math, for kids, is a game, too. Everything for them is a game. That’s the great thing about being a kid. In Little League, you play hard and you play to win, but it doesn’t actually matter who wins. And good coaches get this. They don’t get mad and they don’t throw you off the team. They don’t tell you that you stink at baseball, even if you do — they tell you what you need to do to get better.”

He then gives an example of what it means to coach math instead of teaching it. He says, “For C. J., it means I give him a mystery number to think about before bed. I’m thinking of a mystery number, and when I multiply it by 2 and add 7, I get 29; what’s the mystery number? And already you’re doing not just arithmetic but algebra.” As I am writing this blog my 5 year-old granddaughter is watching my wife put fishsticks on a plate. She put 6 fishsticks on the plate and asked my granddaughter how many more fish sticks do we need to have 8 of them? My wife is coaching math.

Ellenberg cites many games that are math related. Such older games include chess, which builds the ability to follow a series of logical steps and Monopoly, which requires basic arithmetic and probability reasoning. He also suggests newer games which include Rush Hour , a board game about search algorithms; Set, a study in higher-dimensional geometry in the form of a viciously competitive card game; and DragonBox, an app for phone or tablet that teaches the formalisms of algebra. If you research on-line you will be able to find many more games that have mathematical concepts built into them.

My own personal favorite as a child was the board game All-Star Baseball, a spinner game with player disks divided into sectors. The area of each sector was based on the probability of the player’s batting outcome using his real-life stats. For example, the area of the sector numbered 1 represented the probability of that player hitting a home run. Of course, the Babe had the largest sector 1. As a GM I drafted the teams for my league. Then I played the games keeping the team standings and calculating the players’ statistics. Not realizing it, I was doing mathematics and enjoying it. This game exposed me to probability, statistical measures, and basic arithmetic.

To be continued:

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