Math as a Form of Life


by Keith Ostfeld -

I and many of my fellow educators at the Children's Museum of Houston have long held a belief that children need to be provided with a free-choice learning environment that stimulates hands-on, minds-on, open-ended explorations into phenomena to help them construct their understanding of topics that interest them. We believe that what we and other children's museums and science centers provide is access to application of ideas and phenomenological explorations that often fly in the face of "common sense understanding."

For me, this belief came from the way that I learn and the sorts of environments that stimulated me as a learner. For me, math was always easy. I was a math teacher's worst nightmare - the kid who instinctively understood what needed to be done almost as the lesson began, finished the classwork and homework within the first 20 minutes of class, and then checked out of class, either running ahead through the rest of the week's work, doing work for other classes, or, worst, disrupting everyone around me. Unlike many kids who hated math because they didn't "get it," I found math boring because I understood what to do, but rarely understood the application for what I was learning - Papert's idea that many classrooms give "mathematics learners scarce resources for making sense of what they are learning."

As I read through Seymour Papert's Mindstorms, I found myself excitedly nodding along, recognizing many of my own beliefs in how we should be teaching children laid out in wonderfully detailed language. I, myself, am a proud member of "Logo learners" who did many of the exercises he describes as child on, at the risk of dating myself, a Commodore 64, which I'm sure had a far greater impact than I may realize on my own educational philosophies, philosophies that so often conflicted with traditional classrooms that I not only checked out as a learner (often spending more time trying to figure out the precise bare minimum needed to maintain my GPA than on my actual classwork), but eventually left formal education altogether because my administrations regulated me away from what I felt...what I KNEW...about how I should be teaching my students. As Papert said, “We are in the process of digging ourselves into an anachronism by preserving practices that have no rational basis beyond their historical roots in an earlier period of technological and theoretical development."


So, on March 14th, I found myself MCing our annual Pi Day Pie Fight event, the apex of a series of activities and events we hold each year to celebrate Pi Day (which fortunately for us always seems to fall during Spring Break - peak attendance time!). And, as in prior years, I was asked the question, "So why do you celebrate Pi Day." And, as I took in a breath to launch into my usual schpiel about the importance of Pi, I paused for a moment. I realized that what we do with all of the activities surrounding Pi Day (even the silly fluff events like a pie fight), isn't about Pi per se. It's about stilling fears in children about math by giving meaning to math. By giving it an environment and a purpose, we bring it to life. Kids get to watch it breathe and move, and realize how interwoven it is throughout their lives. I've been asked many questions by kids at our Math Cart, and two stick with me:


"This is fun. Why isn't our math in school like this?"

"This isn't math, so why do you call it Math Cart?"


Here, math isn't about rote calculations, but actually, really doing math, just like I many other Logo learners walked out our problems in front of old computers which, to us then, were bright, beautiful, and we had no idea they had anything to do with math.