Thursday, February 28, 2013

Math Play, Happiness in Homework

Just a couple more days of this happiness stuff and I'll get back to being grumpy again.

I'm at the kitchen table next to my older daughter who is working on her math homework for school. This is her second piece of math homework today as she is now taking two math classes. Were she in high school and taking a math elective, this would be wonderful, but she is in sixth grade and the school and district are petrified of their test score results. As schools usually do, the solution is to assign more work.

It's not a great idea.

Here at the kitchen table I do my best to make this "work" a little more like play. I know that my girls learn better when they play than when they work. Give them a brand new pad of paper and a set of pens and they will either draw or write to their heart's contents. Tell them that they have to compose an essay that will be graded and they grind to a halt.

So what does this have to do with happiness?

People learn more when they are happy. This includes children. Happiness helps us want to go on and on with something. When we go on and on, we tend to go deeper and deeper into whatever that thing is. This explains why my daughter knows most everything about how her iPhone works. I never assigned anything. I just handed it to her and let her go to town. Even when she ran into a problem she never worked at fixing it. She played at fixing it instead.

I use this philosophy in many things. Back in the days when I used to balance a checkbook (and sometimes I miss those times), I played with the numbers and found not just satisfaction but pleasure in making things work out. When I came up short or long in my totals, the process became a puzzle that I wanted to solve. There were times when that process was frustrating just because I had trouble finding the solution, but even so it was a good kind of frustration, one that left me feeling, for lack of a better word, happy throughout the process.

Teaching my daughter math isn't about just getting her to the right answer. I couldn't give a rat's ass about getting all the answers right. Instead, I want her to see a way of thinking that is playful. Disciplined, but playful. She's working on inequalities and solving for x. Here's a quick example:

P/4 > 1/2

She likes to guess than answer first and I like to let her. Guessing is fun for her because it's a quick test of whether she really has the idea down in her head yet or is still trying to learn it. In the case of this problem, she guessed wrong. So I said, "P has to stand alone."

She smirked at me. I asked her to read the left side of the problem to me.

"P divided by 4."

I asked, what's the opposite of dividing by four.




"Try it."

She multiplied P/4 by 4 and got P all by itself. Another smirk and a pause.

"And what we do to one side of the inequality," I said.

"We do to both sides."

She wrote 1/2 * 4 and I expected her to say "four times one-half," but she happily surprised me and said, "it's just asking what's half of four," and then she wrote 2.

I'm not saying that any of this was trip to Disney World fun, but it is a kind of fun for the two of us. We take each problem as it comes and see what it has to offer.

At one point however, she looked and said, "six problems down," and started to count the number to go. I heard her begin to sigh and stopped the counting.

"What's the next one say?"

She read it to me and then solved it without any of my help. She went on to the next and the next one after that. Every so often, she had a question for me and we went back to the ideas we have been going over: do the opposite of what has been done to the variable and then do it to both sides of the inequality. We laughed at mistakes and we talked about things as we went.

In other words, we played math homework for a little while and it made us both happy. And now I've reached 750 words without once having worked at it. Play gets the job done. Play makes us happy. Play makes me want to write on.