Commentary: Adding and Abstracting | KERA News

Commentary: Adding and Abstracting

Dallas, TX –

What the world really needs is a better understanding of math. Math, to me, represents fun, freedom, and peace. It is inconceivable that adherents of algebra would ever take up arms against the followers of solid geometry. Jimmy Carter, our most peaceful president, was a mathematician. The best math students at my high school were soft-spoken and peaceful. None of them ever got in fights, or were even loud or aggressive. They did not, to my knowledge, ever even argue. The area of a rectangle is always equal to its length multiplied by its width.

These bright students understood the fundamental nature of math and its properties. I was always pretty good in math but only because I was good at memorization. I didn't really understand math until, at seventeen, I learned that things do not have value simply because they exist but have value because of their relationship to something else. No one is an island and no island has value without its relationship with the sea, other islands, the continents, the world, the solar system, the galaxy, and the universe.

Trying to teach math to children without explaining abstraction leaves them no alternative but memorization. Math education should begin with elementary school pupils learning that math is their best friend. This personalizes the abstraction and takes the fear out of math. The fun part is learning that math tells you who you are and where you are in life and in history. Without math you would never get a birthday gift, and there would be no fun in that. You wouldn't have a birthday party because you wouldn't have a birthday. There would be no calendar. There could be no sports. Without math there would be no cartoons because math is necessary for the angle, perspective, and animation in cartoons. Each frame of a cartoon passes through the camera at twenty-three frames per second.

There would be no meter without math and therefore no music. Music is, of course, a big part of children's lives, hip-hop and rock, for example. Jazz, on the other hand, appeals to few students, its lack of popularity corresponding with a general lack of appreciation of the abstract. But jazz should be used to teach math. Teachers could call it patriotic music because it "spreads freedom," to extrapolate from a recent political catchphrase. It spreads freedom because of its free movement in thought and idea and its whimsical ranging among the notes of individual perception.

Teaching elementary school pupils the concept and importance of abstraction enhances their understanding of math as it does other areas of education. Educators may still believe children's brains aren't ready for learning abstraction until the teen years, after middle school, but they would be wrong. Again, kids understand the technique of extended reality, multiple perspectives, and suspension of the laws of time and space because these are the tools of animation. Kids are in on the joke when steamrollers smash cats flat in cartoons and then the cats pop back to normal in the next frame.

Math makes all this fun possible but somewhere along the way the fun part gets lost in education. Too many kids see math as a steamroller and themselves as the cats. But unlike in the cartoons, these cats don't always pop back out.

Tom Dodge is a writer from Midlothian.

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