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September 14, 2022

by Morag Hastie, Upper Elementary Teacher, Westside Montessori Toledo

Math is often seen as a ‘dry’ subject — one in which we’re tasked to rote learn how to reproduce the ‘right answer’ over and over again using prescribed methods, methods we fast forget when we leave the classroom. We may either love or hate math depending on whether we believe ourselves to be a ‘math person,’ a belief that most of us form during our early years, or even one we absorb from our parents’ own beliefs. Lovers may argue that math is subjective, that the answer is either right or wrong and they find comfort in that certainty. The hate is often born from feelings of disconnect, and of “when am I ever going to use this?” But math is so much more than memorizing algorithms to crank out answers. The answers are often the least important part! Math is the language of concise argument: it is the journey from the question to the answer, the steps taken, the road trip not the destination. It is creative and artistic. It is storytelling.

As a math teacher I say daily, hourly even, “show your work” not because I’m vindictive or mindlessly punishing my students by making them write more, but because being able to coherently lay our their ‘argument’ of why they believe their answer to be the correct one is the very point of math. It is this skill that is inherent to the math class that every student will take with them for life, whether they leave ‘math’ behind at school or not. Beyond the art of argument, math literacy — knowing the relationship between numbers — is a critical life skill. Without it we run the risk of being duped everywhere we look. If I don’t give my students an understanding of what a million is versus a billion, or what 2% of $149 is versus 20%, or what ‘exponential growth’ actually means, how can I feel confident sending them out into a world that is dominated by the 24-hour-news-cycle and the everyone-is-an-expert-social-media? Knowledge is power. Without passing on a deep-rooted and stable math foundation, I'd leave my students powerless in an overwhelming world.