Learning Math is a Set of Screwdrivers

I remember my first day in middle school in Florence, Italy. It is a sunny morning in September. The classroom is full of nervous eleven year olds, glancing around studying the faces of the strangers sitting in the same room. Everyone has a brand new backpack, deformed by the heavy load of pristine new books; you can see all the new clothes, new shoes, new pens and pen pouches, new notebooks that the parents bought in the summer weeks preceding this very important day. The aroma of freshly sharpened No.2 pencils, papers of many kinds, vinyl binders, and books is overwhelming and exciting. Everybody is on their best behavior, trying to make a good first impression, ready to learn and make friends; ready to be exposed to all the new and exciting knowledge reserved for middle school kids, and become part of a club that was out of reach until this very day. The big kids club!

A woman enters the classroom, greets us with a simple “Buongiorno”, and writes her name on the blackboard. She looks unhappy and unfriendly. She announces that she is the math teacher, and that she is going to start immediately by assessing where we are at in our math skills. Her concept of “assessing” is giving us a nasty inquisitive look and stating: “You are assumed to know additions and subtractions and multiplications. If you don’t know, it is a problem because we won’t review these. Now, let’s see: who can’t do division?”

Confusing kids math problem on chalkboard

Panic! Everybody is paralyzed in fear. The excitement sinks in every heart. All of a sudden I could swear that looking out the window the sky appears cloudy and gray. Nobody moves. Why would anybody in their right mind denounce themselves as ignorant to this woman on their first day of school? The woman continues “OK, so everybody appears to know how to do division. Very good.” She smiles sarcastically and stares at the list of names on the desk. She lifts up her head and points her finger toward a student in the middle row. “You, in the red shirt. Yes, you! What is your name?” A boy in his new red shiny shirt announces his name with a trembling voice. You can almost hear his thoughts “Darn! I knew this shirt was too bright!” The teacher points at the blackboard and says, “Come here at the board please, and write this division: 132 divided by 15, let’s see how you do.” The rest is a blur. I wasn’t the kid in a red shirt, and I could have probably done that division, but that didn’t matter at all. The only thing that was clear was that math was bad news.

What a great way to teach kids to hate math. Math all of a sudden became cold, dry, and unforgiving. Something to fear; something to be afraid of!

Math Learning Doesn’t Have to Be Scary

That was one of the worst math teachers I ever had. Not because she didn’t know math – she had a degree in it – but because she couldn’t teach it. She just terrorized us with her ways, making us feel like we were always supposed to know something that we didn’t know. I hated math during middle school and I didn’t do too well at it. Only a few kids did. At that time, I would have never believed that a few years later, in high school, I would have passed my math graduation exam with flying colors, achieving the highest possible score in the state exams and that I would have been in love with math so much that I chose a major in Computer Science.

The only difference between middle school and high school was the teacher I had. In high school I found a fantastic teacher. He taught us to see math as a set of tools – “a collection of screwdrivers” as he used to call it – that helps us solve real, practical and material problems of everyday life. He helped me understand the concept of “number” in a way that became a natural way of thinking. It wasn’t an abstruse concept to memorize as-is, a confusing story to repeat when asked by a teacher, a table of faceless relationships between numbers, or a set of rules to apply to pass a test. It came alive. I could see numbers in everyday things, and their relationships and properties were clear and fascinating. Even the most complex parts of the high school curriculum such as limits, integrals, mathematical analysis, complex numbers, and linear programming became a set of practical tools to understand and resolve real world problems.

This teacher made a significant difference in my life, and today I am hoping to use the “set of screwdrivers” he gave me to build programs that help kids master, deeply understand, and love these very fundamental concepts that helped me so much in life.

Girl with set of learning screwdrivers

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