Most parents aren’t professional mathematicians. But there are a few. This is the first in a series of interviews with mathematician parents with the goal of helping parents integrate math teaching into parenting. See the list of interviews here.
I had the privilege of interviewing David Chandler, a physics and math teacher. He runs Math Without Borders, an ongoing project to supplement high school math textbooks with Home Study Companions, to make them useful for homeschoolers and adults for self-teaching.
Last week I published an article about mazes that was inspired by some of his work with homeschoolers. He does some really cool things!
MathFour: Thanks for taking the time to answer some questions, David. First, what’s your degree and career? And how long have you been in math?
David: I have a BS in physics (1970), an MA in education (1975), and an MS in mathematics (applied math) (1997). I have taught physics and math (high school, Jr. college, some K-12) since 1972 and done other math-related projects on the side (inventions, design projects, publishing, curriculum innovations).
MathFour: Tell me about your family – how many kids do you have and how old are they? Are any of them more or less interested in math than the others in the family?
David: Two daughters born in 1974 and 1979, making them currently 37 and 32. B1, my older daughter, went through Alg II. She had some excellent teachers and some rather poor teachers. She would freely come to me for help and discussion. My younger daughter, B2 didn’t want the discussion. She tended not to come to me because she just wanted to know how to do the immediate problem at hand and got irritated when I said any more. As an adult she went back for more math as a prerequisite to other course work (involving logs, trig, etc.) and got tutoring from me over the phone. She values the explanation thing more now. My wives have not been mathematicians.
MathFour: Did you have any worries about your daughters academically? In particular, did you think they would do better in math than in other subjects because of your influence?
David: I think they both got the point that math is about understanding and problem solving and creativity. Both are academically well rounded.
MathFour: How did you play with your girls? How do you play with your grandchildren? Did/do you view playtime as different in any way than other “non-mathematician” parents?
David: I engage in a lot of banter that is probably math-influenced. When they say to me “Happy Birthday” I say back to them, “Happy Birthday to you too,” in the sense that she can be happy on my birthday. This year B1 sent a Facebook message, “Happy Birthday to us all.” That’s not explicitly mathematical, but it is the kind of thing Sheldon might say. I came up with a song that eliminates the asymmetry of l-m-n-o-p so you could sing the alphabet both forward and backward and taught it to my grandkids. Every rainbow we see is a physics excursion into dozens of phenomena. Theme park rides are, of couses, a learning experience. We have lots of “shared learning experiences.” Whenever something triggers a new insight in me, they are definitely exposed to the excitement it generates. They know what it is like to experience the world through eyes informed by physics/math awareness.
MathFour: Do you think you speak with your daughters or behave differently than other parents because you have a math background?
David: I don’t talk down to them, but I don’t overwhelm them in jargon either. I wonder about a lot of things out loud. I critique the world with a quantitatively informed (and order of magnitude informed) crap detector in their presence. I model inquisitiveness and observation and show appreciation when it is a shared endeavor. I think that attitude has rubbed off on both of them, possibly genetically as well as environmentally.
MathFour: Have you ever had either of the girls express negative thoughts about math?
David: Not really, except for B2’s impatience for my explaining in too much detail, and a tendency to go on too long when her attention has already shifted.
MathFour: Have you ever disagreed with one of your daughter’s math teachers?
David: Yes. B1 took Alg II in India where I was teaching at an international school. Her teacher was a young, very traditional Indian woman who spent a week or so teaching them how to read log tables, including interpolation, funky work-arounds for logs of numbers less than 1, etc. It was a total turnoff to the class, all of whom had calculators by then, and seeing this drove me up the wall.
MathFour: What happened; how did you handle it?
David: I discussed with B1 how all of this was now outdated and how using logs to solve exponential equations, using log paper, modeling perceptual phenomena with log scales (dB’s, astronomical magnitude scale, octaves, etc.) was really where it was at. I approached the teacher about this issue, as tactfully as I knew how. She listened politely, and didn’t react in an overtly negative way, but she may have been overwhelmed by me. She didn’t change what went on in class. I taught B1 a lot of things not in the book, and better ways to do things, but this didn’t generally lead to direct interactions with the teachers.
MathFour: Now to change direction a little to a more worldview of math. What do you see as the biggest challenge in math education today?
David: Getting kids to quit memorizing things and start digging for understanding. Also seeing math not so much as a body of knowledge as a mindset.
MathFour: What do you see great happening in the world of math education?
David: Internet communication for discussions like these. New insight-generating computational tools (Geogebra, Geometer’s Sketchpad, Tracker, spreadsheets, etc.) and their use in the classroom. What goes on in my (and presumably a lot of other) classrooms despite regressive influences like high stakes testing, minimum standards which become maximum standards, etc.
MathFour: What advice can you give to non-mathematician parents that might help them raise their kids to like and appreciate math.
David: Learn some math, engage in problem solving, problem posing, observation of the world, cultivating a sense of wonder, taking curiosity a step further and digging a little, model these for your children, etc.
MathFour: Thank you for taking the time to answer our questions, David!
How about you – do you have any questions for a mathematician parent? Share them in the comments – we’ll see if we can get David in here to answer them!
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