By Jared Bean
Before working as a staff member at AVA, I worked for many years as a math and physics tutor. I tutored people of various ages and skill levels, ranging from grade school children to undergraduate college students. I always enjoyed it; helping people understand concepts that previously mystified them was engaging and rewarding. Unfortunately, my main takeaway from all those years of tutoring was that lots of people really dislike math. At best people find it dreadfully boring, and at worst the mere mention of the subject is enough to enrage or drive people to tears. (I’m talking about both children and adults here) I’d like to relate an experience I had here at AVA with a student who really disliked math.
This particular student was a happy, exuberant 7-year-old who decided that he wanted to play Monopoly. Not many people were interested in playing at the time, but he did manage to recruit me. This was his first time playing, so I helped him understand the basic rules and we quickly began playing. When it came time to exchange money and make change for the first time, I asked him a simple arithmetic question to which he quickly replied with disgust that he hated math and refused to do any of it. In an effort to salvage the game and this particular student’s experience playing it, I offered to be the banker and do all of the math the game required of us. This student happily finished the game, and we both had an enjoyable time.
This game happened at the beginning of the week and as is typical of younger children, he wanted to play again and again. I don’t know how many games of Monopoly were played that week, but it was played almost constantly. Near the end of the week, I was observing this student in yet another game of Monopoly, and what I witnessed was astounding. Instead of reeling in disgust at the mere notion of a simple arithmetic problem, this student was being the banker himself, doing all of the calculations not only for himself, but for each of the other 3 to 4 participants, mentally calculating three-digit arithmetic problems with a speed and accuracy I would expect from a typical adult.
What happened? Why was there such a shift in both this student’s skill level and attitude toward arithmetic? I don’t know for sure, but I have a theory. Playing Monopoly allowed this student to view arithmetic differently. Instead of arithmetic being boring or scary, or something that is forced on him, arithmetic became a means to an end, a tool to be used to facilitate an enjoyable activity. It became clear that improvement in arithmetic skill would increase enjoyment of the game, and so his skills improved rapidly.
It’s such a shame that public school’s default strategy to teach mathematics is to force it upon people. Instead of allowing people to explore and find reasons for themselves why math can be fun and useful, we sit them in classrooms, forcing them to trudge through the same, disconnected-from-real-life concepts again and again, in an effort to hopefully make something stick. In my estimation, this does far more harm than good. I saw the potential damage in my Monopoly playing friend. What if he continued through his life believing that math was something to be feared or loathed? Or worse yet, something to be avoided because he lacked the intelligence to succeed pursuing it? This mindset is tragically common.
At AVA we don’t require our students to formally study math. Consequently, our students don’t view math as a drudgery. Instead, it is something that is learned naturally and easily as a part of daily life. The concepts are mastered more quickly, with greater joy, and much less anxiety when compared with coercive schooling.
Published January 18, 2021