Mathematical Resilience: An Organic Experience

I have been doing something called Family Math Nights in the Province of Ontario for a couple of years now. They are funded through government grants given out to Parent Councils. They usually last 2 hours and consist of about 5 to 7 stations that are amiable to learners Grade 1 to 8. Parents are encouraged to participate in everything from helping build LEGO Fractal Pyramids to Exploding Dots — the roll out activity for The Global Math Project(

Last night, I had one of the most satisfying moments as a math educator in my entire life. And, it was quite unexpected. Again, as mentioned, there are many stations for kids to visit, and they usually spend 20 to 30 minutes at the ones that catch their fancy/curiosity. Last night however, there was this precious little girl who stayed at the Logic Mazes/Puzzles station for the entire night, trying to crack the maze below. I took a photo capture of my post on Facebook that tells the story.

Children are hard-wired for resilience. But, it doesn’t come cheaply. And, by cheaply I mean problems/questions that are stale offerings — and, in spite of being dressed up with ostensibly relatable narratives — that don’t really capture the interest/imagination of children. If the problem isn’t captivating, the resilience will be bounded and inorganic — at best. Demanding resilience is wrong. It is not some sterilized expectation to magically appear just because there has been a checkbox created for it. And, while the intentions to have it as an expectation in mathematics are noble, it’s not going to flourish if the questions are flat, or worse, banal.

In a story I wrote recently, A Fantasy K to 12 Curriculum(, I mentioned the inclusion of Abbott’s logic puzzles. This was not only for their uniqueness, but also for the deeper mathematical thinking which is embedded in the construction/solutions of these mazes.(

James Tanton and myself surfed the ideas of building patient and persistent problem solvers in a video that we created at Scolab, the digital resource company that I work for. The key part of our lengthy conversation is between the 7 and 8 minute mark — especially the moment where James references the word “Funstration”:)

Again, resilience is a skill/attribute that grows with a deep involvement — almost an intimacy — with a problem that is gripping on its own merit. Usually the weaker the math question, the more dolled up the narrative becomes. Expecting resilience to develop in our students without thought to the problem is pretty naive. Great problems tap into our curiosity immediately, priming the resilience pump simultaneously.

Over a decade ago, while the popular tv show NUMB3RS was still going strong, accompanying worksheets for each episode were available through Texas Instruments. The Goldbach Conjecture, proposed first in 1742, simply states that every even number greater than 4 can be written as a sum of two odd primes. It remains unsolved, in spite of a million dollar offering for its proof or disproof. History. Mystery. Prime Numbers. Pop Culture. A student’s resilience for decomposition of numbers will now occur in the only way that it can — naturally.

Goldbach Question from NUMB3RS

Kids don’t hate math because it’s hard; kids hate math because it is boring. We still have fraction questions that unrealistically state something like 3/8 of a pan of brownies remain. This is false. No pan of brownies ever made in the history of baking has had exactly 37.5% leftover after 5 consecutive, surgical extractions of 12.5%. You can talk all day about fractions — just don’t create unicorn applications. Please, just stop.

While Family Math Nights are lots of fun, the experience of resilience — joyful struggle — should occur first and foremost inside classrooms. If this means reevaluating the construction/design of curriculum at the deepest levels, then so be it. Luckily, this has already started. We just need to keep the hard conversations happening and persist.

We need to be resilient in finding solutions.

I was fortunate. 4 years ago I was allowed to quit teaching because of benign mathematics. Students don’t have that luxury. They are thirsting for context and relevance in mathematics, and they are on board for however challenging the journey. Children are drawn into situations that involve curiosity, play and connection. Great math questions are the lures here. Once hooked they will never leave. They will be resigned to a life of mathematical resilience.


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