On Being a Math Person (or Not)

One of my favorite parts of Math On-A-Stick is that it creates opportunities for positive conversations about math with adults.

Ask any math teacher, and they’ll confirm that when meeting a new person and revealing the work that they do, there is a high probability they’ll that person say, “Oh, I am not a math person,” or “I always hated math” or “I’ve always been bad at math.”

We hear that at Math On-A-Stick, too.

But we also hear, “How is this math?”

Most of the time people asking that question haven’t spent much time contemplating what mathematics is. Society has told them that math is the subject you study in school. It comes with worksheets and time pressure and lots of symbols, and you need to do it in pencil so you can erase your mistakes. Math has a predetermined goal; the answers are at the back of the book, and a good math teacher knows all the answers to questions that students ask

None of these things exists at Math On-A-Stick, so when people ask me, “How is this math?” I see it as an opportunity.

I characterize math as noticing, studying, and playing with numbers, patterns, and shapes.

I point out young children on the Pattern Machines, and how they go from poking randomly at the buttons to putting them up and down in rows or columns in a typical 10-minute play session. That switch from random to ordered represents a bit of learning that’s essential for understanding future school-math topics such as place value, area, multiplication, fractions, and algebra.

I show them children holding tiling turtles and slowly rotating them, trying to imagine how two turtles will fit together.

I invite them to play a round of Which One Doesn’t Belong?

I think of this as identity work.

There is an instinct to meet the claim, “I am not a math person,” with “Yes, you are a math person.” But I don’t think that I should argue with people about their professed identity.

Instead, I can represent math as a more approachable and more humane discipline than they have imagined it to be. I can invite them to consider math as a world worth exploring with fresh eyes. I can show them their children exploring it as we talk.

After all, I’m not so worried about changing an adult’s mind about whether they are a math person. Instead, I am worried about whether they think the children in their lives are math people.