Math is Fundamental
Math is so much more than just numbers, symbols, and arbitrary rules for manipulating them. At it’s heart, math is the language scientists use for describing, understanding, and predicting how the world works. Do you appreciate the computer that brings this content to you? The heating and air conditioning that keep you comfortable? The fact that we can visit friends in neighboring states or countries within a day? Bridges that make crossing a river like the Mississippi a simple thing? GPS signals that make it almost impossible to get lost? None of these things would be possible without the tools that math gives to scientists and engineers.
Very Few People Can Jump to “Pure Math”
Math without an application is something for elementary school students and the select few who pursue a career in theoretical mathematics. The truth is that math “needs” an application for most people to be able to make sense of it. Even many of those who ultimately go down the rabbit hole of advanced theoretical math begin with practical applications and only later learn to really generalize what they discover. Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz were trying to answer questions related to practical applications when they invented calculus. I’m confident they had no idea of the wide-ranging applications their approach would have in fields such as economics, social sciences, electronics, and just about every other scientific or engineering challenge.
Curiosity Labs courses will focus on using real-world applications as the foundation for our math courses, and use hands-on projects and experiments to help solidify the concepts we teach.
Math Requires Biological Maturity
Even with an application to help scope the problem, math beyond addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division requires thinking in somewhat abstract terms. As a general rule, almost all humans are unable to grasp the key abstractions at the core of math until they have passed a biological development threshold. This development doesn’t generally happen until the early teens, and is a matter of biological process that can’t be overcome by hard work, repetition, or willpower. Children who haven’t reached that level of cognitive development may be “good” at math and be able to solve complex algebra problems by employing the strategies and recipes they’ve memorized, but they won’t really understand how it works, what it’s good for, or how to extend it to different problem sets without someone “teaching” them how to do so. In my experience, many of the kids who are “good” at math and functioning above the expected “grade level” are really just the kids who are good at following directions. Many of them eventually stumble — or at least stall out in making progress — at some point until their cognitive development catches up with their “skill level.” That kind of stall is dangerous, and may convince them that they aren’t good at it anymore or that they “don’t like math.”
While there are people who have fundamental limitations and learning challenges, most of the people who think of themselves as “bad” at math were just pushed into it too early and checked out. In many cases, they weren’t good at following math recipes because they didn’t understand why they were doing it or how it worked. Unfortunately, this mindset (wanting to understand why) is exactly the mindset required to be a true mathematician or engineer, but that mindset can be the biggest hurdle to overcome when math is pushed at them before they are ready.
In the Curiosity Labs, we recommend that people wait until they are ready. Trying to study Algebra in 6th grade is not going to provide your child an advantage, and might even set them up for failure. When that threshold of development occurs differs from person to person and between genders, but it’s almost always going to be sometime after about 13 years old.
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