Doing the Math

Joey Hudy, Maker

In February, a 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 Things interview with Joe Hudy was posted on the Make blog where he shares projects, experiences, tools and people that inspire him.  In response to the tools he can’t live without question, Joey says “my calculator watch because I don’t know my multiplication and division tables.”  This is a 16 year old who doesn’t know his math facts.

You might be thinking “Terrible, not knowing his multiplication and division tables at age 16!” Well, think again, Joey was recently named one of the 10 Smartest Kids in the World (And the Crazy Math Problems They Can Solve).

How does a kid who admittedly does not know multiplication and division tables get named one of the top ten smartest kids in the world?

My hunch lies in how he applies math as opposed to how school teaches math. Nearly all math is taught and problems are presented in abstract forms.   Typically, math is taught in sequential and increasingly difficult series of skills and courses.  Always preparing for the next level or concept with nary a meaningful use in sight.  “You’ll need it in middle school” is not good enough. What Joey has done is make the math he uses concrete, applied to the projects he designs and makes.  I’m quite sure he has collaborators and teachers who help him figure out what he needs to know and do.  When the time comes for using math, he uses the tool he finds best, his calculator watch. It’s not hard to imagine Joey coming to a problem, lifting his wrist, punching a few keys, finding an answers and moving on to the next step in a real project.

So why do we fret over math tables?  What’s the real purpose of memorizing math facts? Do the benefits truly outweigh the consequences of emphasizing math facts to young children?

Gears of My Childhood

tamc0356Each time I read Papert’s essay about the gears of his childhood, I feel a little remorse for some of the more episodic moments I had growing up.  Though that remorse fades as I realize that all is not lost and consider my “gears” more as seeds for later realization.

When I was 9 or 10 years old, I remember waiting for the delivery truck.  Everyday.  For two weeks.  It was such an eternity for me.  I was awaiting an RC car kit. One I had saved for with money I had earned. The Grasshopper had a 380 motor, shocks, big sandpaddle studded rear tires, an ABS resin chassis and a 2-channel radio with 1 servo.

Upon arrival, I tore through the box and sorted out the pieces.  I remember reading through the directions taking it all in.  Wondering if I could complete the kit.  Several days later I finished putting the Grasshopper together and drove it in the driveway until the battery died down.  I raced my friend, who had a similar car, and as all boys do, crashed the car numerous times.  I often went “under the hood” to tweak a screw here and there.  I even tested the servos to be certain they were calibrated even though there wasn’t anything really wrong with them.  I loved peering in on the moving parts, unhooking and reattaching wires, and testing how the shocks worked.  I was so amazed that one could control a machine remotely from several hundred yards away.

Despite having this early interest, and having a a mechanical engineer for a father, the tinkering and kit building faded.  While I didn’t go into engineering or other related field, the experiences I had with putting the car kit together, along with having a space to do so, we had a great basement with plenty of tools and workbenches, was the dormant seed for my current interest in tinkering and making for learning.

I want the children I work with, including my own child, to have a variety of these “gears” experiences.  I don’t mean that it must involve actual gears as Papert’s and, at least partially, mine did.  I want children to experience Papert’s powerful idea around constructionist learning.  My goal is to create a Maker Studio in my school where children can tinker and make using not only digital technologies that have garnered so much attention, but ones that bridge the physical world with the digital and vice versa.

Prescription for Play

If you know me, you know I’m a big proponent for play for children.  Even big children. While I agree with what is being said in the video, we can’t ignore the modern world we live in.

What constitutes play with computers?  Is it video games?  According to Dr. Marilyn Benoit video games aren’t what they mean here.  I’m inclined to agree, the type of play being described is free play.  Free play can be though of as unscripted, no rules or loosely defined rules where children are open to try new personalities, ideas, skills without the fear of evaluation from another.  While most video games tick off some of these, I belief they are in violation of the first, they are not all unscripted.

So, what does this free play with computers look like?  I’ve got a few ideas and I love to keep the suspense so… I’d like to hear from you first.  What does play with computers look like if it isn’t video games?

Hindsight may be 20/200

Wisdom is both foresight and hindsight.  Papert et. al, possessed tremendous foresight that never ceases to amaze me. I’m also amazed at the current lack of hindsight for this very work…

“We were sure that when computers became as common as pencils (which we knew would happen) education would change as fast and as deeply as the transformations through which we were living in civil rights and social and sexual relations. I still think this will happen even though the time needed is turning out to be a little longer than we imagined and the process more complex. When it does happen it will use the ideas that we worked so hard to develop back then.”

The Daily Papert, November 14, 2011
from You Can’t Think About Thinking Without Thinking About Thinking About Something