Saturday, May 1, 2010

On the Importance of Making Math Fun

“Dad, I hate math! I hate boring math. Once I know something, why do I have to do a ton of homework on it?” This is the beginning of my conversation with Paulina a few days ago when I asked her to do her school homework. This was a worrisome warning sign in my opinion. If I continue subjecting my daughter to traditional classroom instruction, I will kill her interest in math, and squander any chance she may have of developing her considerable talents.

It is sometimes hard to understand what gifted children have to endure in a regular classroom. Let us do a thought experiment together to try to see the problem. Consider the following scenario. You sit through a one hour lecture on arithmetic. You then spend a whole afternoon doing repetitious drills on problems that are clearly too easy and don’t teach you anything. Now, repeat this every week for an entire school year. Then, do this year after year until graduating from high school. Sounds fun. Doesn’t it? Take a minute or two to imagine how you would feel. Now, do you agree with me?

It am convinced that the best way to kill a child’s interest in math is to teach him or her in the traditional way. I advocate a different approach based on the concept behind math circles because they are particularly well suited for gifted kids. Yes, arithmetic is important because it is core knowledge. However, gifted kids can go through it very quickly and benefit most from creative problems sets introducing advanced material. The rest of this article describes the material covered at UCLA’s junior math circle over the past four weeks. I hope you agree with me when you are done that the math-circle approach is far more educational and fun than the way our kids are been tortured today.

What do you think of when you read the following topics?
  • Graphs (not to be confused with the X-and-Y variety)
  • Trees
  • Degree of a vertex
  • Isomorphic graphs
  • Circuits in graphs
  • Euler circuits
  • Planar graphs
  • Restating problems involving maps using graphs
  • The Four Color Problem
You may have never heard or know what any of the above terms mean. You may know a few, but, unless you have studied theoretical computer science or discrete mathematics, you probably don’t know much about them. Would you be surprised to learn that this is what my daughter and a group of other like-minded kids have been learning in the UCLA math circle? All of these topics are generally considered advanced based on the grade level when they are typically taught. However, they can be introduced early on because the terminology is intuitive and simple. This does not mean that graph theoretic problems are easy. In fact, some of these seemingly simple problems are at the cutting edge of research, and this is the beauty of graph theory. It can introduce young minds to cutting-edge research and concepts without spending countless years getting up to speed. This can make math fun and interesting, and I believe this approach should be adopted simultaneously with the teaching of the so-called fundamental concepts.

I am implementing a learning program for Paulina based on the ideas I discuss here. I am done with traditional classrooms. It is time to let her mind fly where it wants to go.

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