Is the math/juggling comparison fair?

I’ve written recently about my experience learning to juggle as well as better ways to teach juggling. Here’s the gist of my argument: When you provide children with an enticing and accessible experience, sometimes simply by showing them something cool, they often want to give it a go. If you can give them success straight away and let them “feel like a juggler,” then they are likely to form a personal attachment and pride that carry them into further success and expertise.

The really key premise, especially since I mostly teach math not juggling, is that we can do the same thing for mathematics. By removing standard progressions for mathematical development (which I think is anything but standard), we can open the mathematical world to young people and give them experiences that make them feel like mathematicians. As I’ve said before, learning math is learning to be a mathematician and think like one.

* * *

In the comments, a friend wrote about her experience blowing glass, and a professor in Santa Cruz left the following comment:

One problem you face is that people think juggling is cool (and glass-blowing is hot), but very few people have those positive feelings towards math. Even if they are reasonably competent, many people don’t particularly like doing math and don’t care whether they get better or not.

The successes you see with people learning to juggle don’t necessarily translate to other subjects where the motivation is lacking.

I’ve coached math teams where everyone was there because they wanted to be, and it was very much like your description of juggling classes—so it isn’t the material so much as it is the desire to learn it.

* * *

I think the professor is quite right about several things. Firstly, I agree that the desire to learn is crucial for formative experiences. Unfortunately, there are lots of ninth graders (and tons of adults) who think math is totally lame. It’s boring. It’s not for them. It’s something for the really super smart. They’re much more likely to get inspired by juggling, that fun and somewhat silly though technical art.

1) Juggling is immediately compelling and visually accessible.
2) Juggling is not a part of school, and without having been required to try it and be graded on their failures, people are much more likely to give it a go.

In contrast, every ninth grader has had a mountain of experience with mathematics, and to speak generally, I think a lot of it is bad – the kind of experiences that tell you “this is not for you,” or “you’re probably not a mathematician, huh?” Fractional arithmetic anyone?

In my experience, young students (elementary and middle school) are much more open to the possibility that mathematical exploration and experiences might apply to them. And yet, even at an ungraded and somewhat free school like Saint Ann’s, the mathematical light goes out for many kids. The loss of interest is largely our own fault! I have to take that personally and think that a huge part of my job is to keep this fire going. Teach them that they are capable mathematicians and that their own questions are at least as valuable as the ones in textbooks.

I’m working very hard to make this happen for students grades five through twelve, and I hope you will too. I’ll report back through the year, and hopefully you’ll do the same. Thank you for your comments!

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4 responses to “Is the math/juggling comparison fair?

  1. Great post. It is certainly a challenge to be a math teacher and try to engage students in a subject in which they mostly like aren’t interested. I always tried very hard to find new and fun ways to present the lessons so they were more open to the math but it does take lots of time to gather up those ideas (especially if your fellow teachers are still in the notes/practice/hw modes). So glad I found your blog! I would love if you checked mine out. I am hosting a giveaway this week to TeachersPayTeachers so you should enter. Have a great day!
    http://lilmoptop.blogspot.com/2011/08/teaching-thursdays-kick-off-giveaway.html

  2. Like any analogy, it breaks down at a certain level. Despite my imbalanced knowledge of these fields, I would say that math is inherently much more complex than juggling. (Of course, right?) BUT… I think you’re right to look for an accessible route to find the delight in both juggling and math. For myself, I wonder if I would be able to take anybody off the street (or any kid in the hallways) and get him/her involved in some interesting math.

    This is most likely the role of puzzles and games in the math curriculum. I think the greater challenge is not that we have to keep them interested for one lesson, but for the whole year or more.

    • I would agree that math is more complex, but I suspect the complexity of one’s understanding of either comes from the complexity of their relationship to it. It’s not enough to require algebra students to “do” linear systems (whatever that means). Show them that it pertains to something that appeals to them, and that they can deepen their relationship to that thing by using and exploring mathematics. I think these are the kinds of things that really stick with people and influence their thinking.

      Easy to say in the summer! I’m really excited to get back down to the hard part, working with real people – responding to and sharing in their pleasure and deep frustration.

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