By: Matt Feldmann
“I never thought that I could have an hour-long conversation about two-digit numbers,” my mother said on Christmas Eve when we were gathered as a family to celebrate the holidays. I took the hint that my enthusiasm for what many people see as everyday numbers might not be as interesting to all of the family. Math is deep, and I can appreciate that not everyone, even people who love math, want to jump into the deep end on Christmas Eve. I’ve never been a person accustomed to small talk though, so a conversation about place value on Christmas Eve seems like as good a topic as any. That fall I had joined a small band of individuals at MIND Research Institute dedicated to solving our country’s math education problem. Prior to working at MIND, I had underappreciated just how deep knowledge of two-digit numbers can be.
My mother’s comment wasn’t an attempt to steer the conversation in a different, lighter direction, however. She was ready for a game. Like me, my family doesn’t do small talk either. We talk about all of the topics that are supposed to be taboo like politics and religion. More often, though, our family gatherings revolve around a game table until late hours in the evening. Some people might jump to the conclusion that we are ultra-competitive (which may also be true – my wife would certainly say so), but I think we are all really looking for a good problem to sink our teeth into. A challenging problem to solve – that is how my family and I prefer to fill our free time.
Some might say it was inevitable that the son of two bankers would love numbers, but that would be a slight to the constant influence of my parents to foster, support and nurture a growing love of numbers and problem solving. As a new parent myself, I can appreciate the dilemma my mother faced standing in front of a four-year old that refused to join the family at the dinner table until he finished the 1000-piece puzzle that he just started five minutes ago. Perseverance in problem solving is a value I am very grateful that my parents worked hard to instill.
The feeling of making progress towards a challenging problem and an appreciation for the depth that can arise from seemingly simple concepts are why I love mathematics. Through elementary, middle and high school, I could go to the well of mathematics to drink up as many problems as I could handle. Mathematics provides a training ground for all types of thinking by posing a mixture of different types of well-formed problems. Unlike any other field of study, there is a certitude to mathematical results due to the precision that characterizes mathematical study. The rigor in mathematics that is imposed by the use of definitions, axioms and proofs provides the certainty of solution that is unique to this field of study. Just as an athlete can monitor their growth in speed, strength and endurance, mathematics provides a longitudinal field of study in which all people can monitor their growth in problem solving.
We can go all the way back to 375 BC and Plato’s writings to see that this belief about the value of mathematics has been long held by humanity:
Then this (mathematics) is a kind of knowledge which legislation must make a subject of study; and we must endeavour to persuade those who are in positions of authority in our State to go and learn arithmetic, not as amateurs, but they must carry on the study until they properly understand the nature of numbers…those who have a natural talent for calculation are generally quick at every other kind of knowledge; and even the slow-witted if they have had an arithmetical training, although they may derive no other advantage from it, always become much quicker than they would otherwise have been.
I have no doubt what Plato’s solution to many of our country’s current problems would be – send all of our politicians off to study mathematics!
My love of problem solving and mathematics has lead me to MIND Research Institute where I work with a team of individuals dedicated to solving the greatest problem that our society faces and that is the mission of MIND – ensuring that all students are mathematically equipped to solve the world’s most challenging problems. A core value my parents have always demonstrated is the dignity and value of all people. At MIND, we value learning and problem solving because we also believe in the dignity and value of all people. In order for all children to be able to become the people they were created to be, to realize their full potential, Plato would agree with MIND that improving the mathematics education situation should be at the top of the list of our nation’s priorities.
MIND Research Institute is a Getting Smart Advocacy Partner.