What is Math?

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When I was younger I used to think that math was all about formulas, equations and numbers–and that it always had a “right” answer. I had a hard time coming up with those “right” answers, and often felt discouraged and dumb based on the accusations and actions of my teachers. So, I decided to write math classes off as “Cs get degrees” courses (just kidding, I was never someone who could settle with a C, so I just cried about the fact that I would never understand :)). Who needed a subject that just made you memorize equations and plug-and-chug data with no real goal in sight?

This attitude carried through my elementary and middle school years, so I saw no reason why it shouldn’t continue right through high school, too. That was until my freshman year geometry class. I was expecting day after day of boring notes and homework problems, but what we got instead were group projects, collaborative assignments and lessons in which we were supposed to prove theorems. My teacher did the impossible–he made math fun. I loved the challenge of being expected to work through difficult problems with classmates and see what we could discover on our own. It was so much cooler to take what I knew and shuffle it around until something new emerged. And working with classmates made everything possible. There were times when I had no idea what to do next (these would have been the times in the past where I would have given up and called it good enough), but thankfully had two or three other minds to bounce ideas off of and gain new insight from. I learned that math was more than I had ever thought. Math literally helped explain the world around me, and applied to nearly every facet of my life. Sure, it included things like numbers, variables, operations and solutions like I mentioned before, but it was more about thinking critically, problem solving and working collaboratively with others than I had ever thought before. And so began my love affair with mathematics.

I recently had another “aha” moment during my semester of teacher assisting in a sixth grade math classroom. I realized the power of justifying one’s response or reasoning when it comes to math. My favorite questions (and likely my students’ least favorite question) quickly became “why?” Why does that work? Why is that the solution? Why are we able to do that in mathematics? It soon became habit for them to have their explanation prepared to share with myself and the rest of the class. It was wonderful to see them explain their thoughts to their peers using pictures, words and gestures–it was like they were now the teachers!

So, I guess I would conclude that “math” is a slightly challenging word to define. It’s almost just as much data and numbers as it is teamwork and thought processes.

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