How to “Grow” a Mathematician

Zero the Hero visits Pre-K students on Derby's 100th Day Math Morning.

Zero the Hero visits Pre-K students on Derby’s 100th Day Math Morning.

By POLLY RIZZOTTO — We all have been told to learn the lessons of history, and there is a lot of value in that simple statement. It applies to politics, culture, religion, ethics and even mathematics. That thought occurred to me as I was reading excerpts from the BBC series, “The Story of Maths,” hosted by Oxford professor Marcus du Sautoy. In the first episode, Professor Sautoy takes us to early Egypt and Babylon, where ancient peoples noticed patterns in nature and developed symbols—including the numeral zero—to count, represent and order the world around them.

Young children mirror the same path of exploration as they discover the world of mathematics. They notice patterns in nature—the seasons, life cycles, the arrangement of the petals of a flower. They experience the function of numbers as they count a bucket of acorns or use a non-standard unit of measure to determine the height of a sunflower stem. As children learn to record this information numerically, they discover the fundamental concept of number as representing an amount. They build bigger, more powerful numbers using zero as a placeholder. Children indeed order their world numerically—who is first and last; and make comparisons—who has more or less. Without even realizing it, children use math all the time and cultivate mathematical ideas.

Teachers and parents know the importance of learning skills such as rapid number naming, automaticity of math facts and identification of increasingly complex patterns as essential for mathematical success. Sometimes these skills are considered the most important stuff. Holistic mathematical experiences such as playing with blocks, doing puzzles, keeping score, learning a card game or sorting toys may be considered less foundational. However, when skills can be learned and applied within the context of meaningful, fun activity, mathematical thinkers are born and an enthusiasm for math may grow into a life-long passion.

Perhaps playful math investigations contributed to the current careers of all our Derby math teachers. Let’s hope that our Derby students find the joy that Math Department Chairman Jerry Boardman expresses: “I love the feeling of getting lost in a problem I need to solve. I forget about everything and get in a zone that is like riding a wave. It is not so much finding the answer that is the thrill, but the figuring-out process that is the fun.”

This week Pre-Kindergarten and Kindergarten moms and dads participated in Math Morning to celebrate our 100 Days of School. Zero the Hero swooped into the classroom for a dazzling guest appearance! Children taught parents how to play “Dice Roll to 100,” and together they recorded coin flips with tally marks and built structures with 100 table blocks. Later in the afternoon the first, second and third graders mixed up in teams and rotated through Lower School classrooms to play various math games, assemble 100-piece puzzles and string iconic Fruit Loop necklaces. Difficult tasks? No. Engaging projects? Yes. Perhaps it is the fun engagement that hooks our students on math and leads them to deeper fascination, a willingness to embrace more challenging work, to persistently practice and problem solve, and become better, stronger mathematical thinkers.

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