People Actually Really Like Mathematics
A Rerun from 2021
My kids finished summer camp but there’s still a week or so until school begins. Once elected, I will make this illegal. While the kids are great etc. I currently am too tired to think, so in lieu of something new here’s a revised version of a mathematical pep talk I originally published at one of my old blogs back in 2021. Enjoy!
Sure, people tell you that they don’t like math. They’ll say they’re bad at it, that they hate it, that they’ll do anything to avoid it, that they’d rather have teeth pulled, that the very thought of it gives them the heebie-jeebies.
This is not true, though, because actually everybody likes math. And the proof is that even people who profess to hate math do it by choice, for fun, a lot of the time.
I am not delusional. I’ve spent plenty time around miserable kids in school. What I’m bickering about are definitions and where we draw our lines. Because jigsaw and logic puzzles, board games, Wordle, Sudoku, and so many other legitimately popular activities don’t get called mathematics, even though I’d argue that they absolutely should be.
It’s beyond my ambitions for this piece to attempt any sort of complete definition of mathematics. But “necessity” should play a role in any description of what math involves.
Necessity is when you you figure out that the battleship must be hiding in the back corner of the game board. It’s when you realize that the only word that you can make with the remaining letters is SMOKE. It’s when you find a U when you’re looking for QUEEN on the wordsearch. Necessity is what all of mathematics is pretty much about.
One of my favorite games to play with students is Mastermind. It’s a game of code-breaking and logic. It’s a game that puts you in direct contact with necessity. Last year I had a 3rd Grade class with one student who told me that they hated math on a daily basis. It was honestly dispiriting. But they loved the sort of thinking they could do with Mastermind. They loved the power of knowing what had to be the case, based only on their own thinking.
Mastermind is not a “math” game. It’s a board game, and not some quirky nerd game either. It’s a mainstream, stack-it-in-the-closet-for-a-rainy-day game. And it’s not a science game. It’s not a sport. It’s all about deciding, based on limited information, what the hidden code must be. If anything deserves to be called math, this game does. What else could it be?
We should acknowledge that games of necessity are mathematical. They’re printed in the newspaper (KenKen, Sodoku), sold at the toy store (Guess Who?), built into our computers (Minesweeper). And the reason these games are everywhere is simple: people love this stuff. They love how it makes them feel and think. It’s mathematics, and they like it.
I wouldn’t say that this sort of logical thinking is all that mathematics is. There is more to it. And in fact school mathematics is dominated by an entirely different aspect of mathematics, equally legitimate but quite different: that of carefully following steps.
Now, I like following steps. I like putting together IKEA furniture. I live with kids that love piecing together LEGO sets. Rubik’s Cubes are a fun time, I hear. There is something absolutely wonderful about following an algorithm and seeing the results pop out, almost magically. There’s definite intellectual joy in successfully pulling off a tricky procedure…
…but it’s not quite the same as thinking logically, is it? Why can’t people experience both in school?
School math contains a lot of real, genuine, important math. But it’s easy to present it in a way that leaves out the parts that feel like Mastermind, Guess Who?, Sudoku. These are some of the most broadly appealing aspects of mathematics, the parts having to do with logical inference and reasoning. It’s a shame—we should try not to do that.
Mathematicians and educators can sometimes be heard asking, how do we get more people interested in mathematics? And I think the answer is, mostly they already are. The question is whether we and our institutions are interested in their mathematics. And mostly, we aren’t.