380: May the Slowest One Win

Math isn't about speed

Jen Ellison, Wife, mother, teacher, and writer
Published on August 7, 2017

Author’s Note:  I use the term “maths” all through this piece because I believe it to be the best label for the subject most Americans refer to as math. Maths is an abbreviation of Arithmetic which covers a wide body of study from addition to calculus, algebra and geometry. Maths is the descriptor I use for the wide range of things that can be studied connected to Arithmetic.

I spent today at a maths training for teachers that was hosted by NapaLearns. I teach computers, but have become a lover of maths, so I enjoyed this training thoroughly. If you follow me on twitter (@jellison23) you are probably VERY aware of this!

I did not enjoy maths in school. I was one of the slowest in my class to learn my multiplication facts. My teachers used “Mad Minutes” where you have to solve a bunch of problems in a minute. I remember this experience with great frustration. I could never beat the clock.  Never.

The timed math test worksheet

I still get the shivers whenever I encounter 6 + 8, which my 2nd grade brain could NEVER hold onto. (It’s 14, btw). I learned, as many of us did, that when it comes to maths – faster is ALWAYS the BEST.

The big lie

Except, that is a big lie — not as big as the lie that you will be pregnant for only 9 months (40 weeks is 10 months), but it pales only beside that lie. Faster at maths isn’t better – it just demonstrates a tremendous ability to memorize “things”.

I am great at memorizing words, and even pages of beautiful passages. TO THIS DAY, I have the entire first page of The Outsiders memorized. I memorized it back in 7th grade, but it is still here with me today. It carried deep meaning for me, and so it grew roots and stayed with me. Words live with me, and I carry them around, but numbers are slippery creatures that would slide away and wiggle free. The difference?  Words carry deep meaning for me, and random numbers were just that – something random and disconnected.

But what if . . . numbers can carry just as much meaning as words?

I do not spell very well. I rely heavily on my computer to find these errors, but still miss so many of them. I took home my spelling lists and dutifully wrote them again and again, but these lists of words were empty to me.

A list of random words was as meaningless as a random string of numbers.

It turns out, I struggle with memorizing meaningless things. This connection – my inability to spell and my inability to remember 6+8=14 are just examples of the same thing. The best way for me to remember and understand anything is for it to carry meaning, and without that it doesn’t matter if I am looking at words or numbers, I will lose them.

Students visualize math fractions

It’s all about juicy ideas

I have since come to understand that maths, art, poetry, philosophy and science are all made of the same stuff;  Ideas. Ideas are powerful, real, and deeply meaningful. They are solid objects that can be studied from so many perspectives. There is no end to exploring them and creating, designing and building with all of them leads to tremendous beauty. That’s right: Maths are beautiful.

I have always loved a dense, beautiful idea captured in a glorious line of prose, but there is so much beauty in an idea expressed in an equation.

This realization came to me rather late in life – after years of declaring myself a “Word Person”, years of maths teachers shaking their heads at my work, and years of sitting in front of 30 problems that felt like a MILLION problems.

Everything starts with my students

I was looking for new ways to show my students that the computer was a simple tool to help them build, learn and create. This led to me discovering I initially relied on the website for computer science instruction, but I soon wandered over to the maths section. I started in Kindergarten because I figured the beginning is always a good place to start. I quickly blew through the K-4th grade lessons, and moved a little slower through 5th and 6th grade. It was as I encountered algebra, geometry and beyond that I began my work in earnest. This was where my gaps in understanding existed. But the craziest thing happened – instead of being intimidated and wanting to quit, I loved that it was difficult. I loved looking at each problem and learning my way through. I enjoyed the more complex problems – and I really felt a sense of accomplishment when I solved them. I began to see myself as a mathematician; Me – a lover of numbers.

The art of teaching

The more I study the art of teaching, the more I realize what a weighty thing it is to be a teacher. And yet, I also see the power in silence, in slow patience — in allowing my students the freedom and space to explore and play with words, numbers, and ideas.  You see, deep thinking takes time. To build something beautiful – be it a poem, a website, a scientific theory or a math theorem – takes so much longer than a minute. Yet, in the classroom the quickest are praised and the slowest are prodded. I remember teaching a second grade girl long, long ago who actually articulated this concept. “They keep telling me to go fast in maths, but I need to understand the whole thing. How can I go fast when I don’t have it in my brain yet?” She was later labeled as learning disabled because she couldn’t process math in the way that was prescribed, but upon reflection it may well be that she had the strongest math brain in the room. She wanted to understand the IDEA of multiplication and she couldn’t do the work until she did. She was thinking deeply in a room that demanded empty memorization.

I really recommend the book Mathematical Mindset by Jo Boaler (@joboaler). You can also look at the awesome material at her website: YouCubed. I hope that you too can embrace the beauty and creativity of mathematics because it is there for every single one of us.

Keep moving forward,


P.S.  Thank you to Peg Maddocks, Mario Piombo and Susie Gallo and all the staff at NapaLearns for such an amazing start to the new school year.  I am always amazed by the awesome ways that Napa Learns supports, encourages, and invests in the teachers of the Napa Valley Unified School District (and beyond).