Wednesday, May 19, 2010

#133 - A Parental Perspective on Math

A Parental Perspective on Math

5/19/10 (#133)

Every few years, a new study points to American children's dismal math capabilities compared to students around the globe. These mediocre showings usually trigger a string of efforts to improve math education in public schools, to bolster interest in mathematics, and to find the reason that American youth fail to compete in this educational category.

As a parent, I know the reason. The cause is evident, even obvious, nearly every time I hear a parent speaking to their kids. Even talking to my own daughter, I sometimes catch myself unintentionally sabotaging her academic future. The root of the problem is Parent Math.

Parent Math is a calculation system that relies on the language of traditional math, but discards the requisite rules that tether abstract concepts to real-world results. While academic math pursues an objective truth, Parent Math is a means to an end, utilizing a flexible set of rules that are unencumbered by consistency. In academic math, two plus two equals four; in Parent Math, two plus two might equal four, depending on whether the desired sum is four; if the desired sum is three, then two plus two can equal three. It's not math at all, frankly, but because it shares the same language as math, it sneaks into the brains of our children and irrevocably dooms their math SAT scores.

Here are a few common examples of Parent Math at work, and how it renders number-based phrases meaningless to a young mind:

Five Minutes: This all-purpose phrase can be used as either an ultimatum or a promise, with equally inefficient results. The way parents use it, a "minute" is like a "donut" - there are a thousand varieties that all fall under the same descriptor, yet there are few similarities between a glazed chocolate cake donut and a yeast-type maple bar.

As an ultimatum, it is issued anywhere from two to twenty minutes before actual departure time, making the conceptual value of five frustratingly fluid. For instance, if my daughter is playing with friends at the playground and the cacophony of screaming children has frazzled me like the participant in some graduate-level college psychology experiment, then "we're leaving in five minutes" means that she has 90 seconds of swing and slide time left; if my wife retrieves our daughter from a play date at the home of another interesting mom, "we're leaving in five minutes" allows the children enough time for several costume changes, a quick board game, and a languid goodbye.

As a promise, the words "give me five minutes" literally translates to, "I will come inspect your block tower or answer your question about leggings when I complete this entree/project/email/thought." The phrase has no regard for the accuracy of the words "five" and "minute" because the goal is simply to prolong the duration the parent has to focus on their own life. Sullying the meaning of "five" is unfortunate collateral damage.

Two cookies: You might think that the concreteness of cookies would make them less suspect mathematically, but in some homes, "You can have two cookies" is the serve that starts a long volley of negotiations and compromises. I've seen conniving kids argue with the craft of a seasoned attorney, citing precedent ("At the apple orchard you said I could have two apples and I ate three") and extenuating circumstances ("the first cookie was twice the size of the second, so really, two smalls and a large are equivalent to two cookies") until the fatigued parent will acquiesces, thereby damning the number "two" to an eternity of representing two, sometimes three, and occasionally more.

100 times: It's amazing how many things have been said or done 100 times. For instance, at various points in recent history, someone in our home has announced that we've watched iCarly 100 times, we've read Ferryboat Ride 100 times, and we've eaten cheese quesadillas 100 times. (Most of those were sighed by exasperated parents; the last one came from Sage as part of her petition for Pizza - as the house quesadilla chef, I struggled to shrug it off.) The problem is, my daughter goes through life as if she were an umpire with that little balls/strikes/outs clicker hidden in her hand, noting the frequency and duration of nearly everything, and we haven't experienced any of these things exactly 100 times: Quesadillas for dinner? 25 tops in my culinary memory. Ferryboat Ride? Closer to 75 times in Sage's life. iCarly? It's been on at least 600 times in our house this month. (I swear it's true.) The collective effect of these inaccuracies is the complete bastarization of "100" as a descriptor.

Is there anything that can be done? It's hard to say. Mathematical inaccuracies remain an essential child management tool, providing a foundation of so-called facts to support a desired agenda. Changing that mindset in order to improve our children's math comprehension is a noble goal, yet at the end of an exhausting day, the path of least resistance is an alluring route, and that path usually circumvents any noble goals.

I should know, I've taken it a hundred times.

©2010 wpreagan