This is an interview I conducted with Raina Wellman, a teen writer for the GenNext feature of the Santa Fe New Mexican.
What led to your interest in math?
As a kid, I had the experience of struggling to understand math and then finally understanding it. That’s a great feeling. I also loved getting lost in a question and seeing how answering good questions can lead to more good questions. And all I needed was a pencil, some paper, and my brain.
What is it that you think is so off putting about math to most people?
We could be here for days. Here’s one. Many people see math as a series of magic tricks that they have to memorize and use over and over again. The tricks don’t make sense which makes memorizing them even harder and by the time they’re asked to use them over and over again, it all feels frustrating and pointless.
How would you reform math education?
Teachers need more time to plan and more time to visit other classes and learn from their colleagues. They need the ability to give better feedback to students which may mean they need fewer students in their classes. From there, we need to look at what math students should learn. Students should be asked to learn a few really big things in each grade rather than lots of really small things.
In what ways can you use a math major?
A math major isn’t a bad way to spend a few years at a university. As computers integrate and improve different fields, we’ll need more people who know how to work with them and who understand their logic. A math major makes people generally useful to those fields.
What would be your advice to teenagers struggling with math?
Understand that there isn’t any evidence that some people are math people and some aren’t. Hard work and a curious mind is all that math asks of people. Mistakes shouldn’t be avoided but explored instead. If you find yourself always making the same error, don’t get embarrassed and start guessing. Ask a teacher instead. And make sure your teachers aren’t just teaching magic tricks. Ask “why does that work?” and don’t settle for answers that don’t make sense.
What do you think about education’s emphasis on mathematics education? (If you feel there is one)
Mathematics and science definitely get the best seat at the table. The President didn’t get up in front of the nation, as Obama did in 2011, and call for us to train 100,000 new English teachers. In many ways that’s unfair and misguided.
People claim there is a shortage of people to go into math and science careers and that if we don’t get people in those careers our nation will suffer. Neither of those arguments is easy to prove.
I love math and think people need to learn how to think algebraically, at minimum. But if you threatened to take away either my ability to compute sums or to write sentences I’d give up the sums without thinking twice about it. Learning to write and communicate is just as important as learning to think mathematically.