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The numbers game

The numbers game
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First Published: Sat, Feb 16 2008. 12 16 AM IST
Updated: Sat, Feb 16 2008. 12 16 AM IST
The art of motorcycle maintenance may have its followers, but if there’s one thing I would choose to teach my kids, it is good old math. As god said, go forth and multiply.
So while the kids may or may not count on me, count they must. In steps, series, squares and cubes. Our baby conversations began with “One, two, buckle my shoe”, and books such as Dr Seuss’ when he says: “Think! Think and wonder. Wonder and think. How much water can 55 elephants drink?” Primary school music revolved around Schoolhouse Rock, that incredible set of songs where multiplication tables are cleverly set to jivvy little numbers.
An Indian obsession may be, this middle-class fascination with math, but it certainly has its benefits. It is the secret ingredient, as any astute analyst will tell you, in our success, the reason why we are in such demand, and the reason why even Japanese schools aim to go the Indian math way.
Why do I as a parent persist with this atavistic fixation with figures in the age of evolved international baccalaureate education? Why bother with the binomial or struggle with statistics when you could earn credits with the intricacies of illustration or with ikebana?
Multiple are the reasons for the merits of math. The most important comes from French philosopher René Descartes: “It is not enough to have a good mind. The main thing is to use it well.” Nothing, needless to say, can beat doing math in the mind and doing memory exercise.
Go deep down enough and everything eventually comes down to numbers. The business of life and living is so numerical, beginning with statistics such as your date of birth and height and weight, and culminating in the decimal points on your bank balance. So why not train kids to be the sort of people who can be interested in numbers and their interconnectedness? This way, they get more confident and have more choices than if they stayed the “Oh, I’m so bad at math” kind of kids who glaze over as soon as they sight a sum.
Because everyone can do math, the “I just can’t do math” may have something to do with bad teachers, but it’s also one of the biggest myths on the education circuit. As a high school teacher said: “There are two ways to do great mathematics. The first is to be smarter than everybody else. The second way is to be stupider than everybody else—but persistent.”
The 3Ps above all else—practise, practise, and practise. OMR (optical mark readers) make multiple choice papers easier to administer these days but, as the math-minded spouse insists, it is problem solving that must be mastered. So it’s 20 or 30 or even 50 sums a day every day till numbers become people you know. Such as 1729, the smallest number you can express as a sum of two cubes in two different ways (9 cube plus 10 cube, as well as 12 cube plus 1 cube). We end up quizzing the kids on their favourite numbers and getting them to look for patterns in the licence plate numbers they see. Any math exam and we’re there—the IPM (Institute for Promotion of Mathematics) scholarships, the Asset and the Maharashtra state government scholarship exams. It’s an effort—all those Sundays (not counting the days of prep)—but it’s also the only way to travel out of a fixed school syllabus, to engage with offbeat problems.
Besides all this, they must count—whatever can be counted, right from steps and yellow cabs on the road to the number of kilometres to destinations in highway travel. Read maps and train timetables. And play guessing games galore—the two-year-old must estimate how many spoonfuls of dal are left in her katori or bowl (you’ll be surprised how much this speeds up the eating ordeal!) while her seven-year-old sister estimates weights of packages and lengths and breadths of rooms.
Like it or not, math is the one key fits all for disciplines ranging from engineering to economics. Even drawing draws from mathematics (yes, it is the geometry that is plain fun; life without geometry, as they say, is pointless!). It is also, as Richard J. Trudeau says in his book Dots and Lines, “the world’s best game. It is more absorbing than chess, more of a gamble than poker, and lasts longer than Monopoly. It’s free. It can be played anywhere—Archimedes did it in a bathtub.”
(Write to lounge@livemint.com)
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First Published: Sat, Feb 16 2008. 12 16 AM IST
More Topics: Mumbers game | Math | Reasoning | Parenting |