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Making Time for Mathematics

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Mathematics is at my core. I don’t know why I am wired this way—I just am. But I learned very quickly that not everyone has the same appreciation for mathematics that I do. I absolutely have no problem with that. But I will not shy away from professing my love for something that defines and shapes me while also keeping my role as a mathematics educator at the forefront.

We have seen the posters, the T-shirts, the bumper stickers, and the jewelry that proclaim an individual’s idolatry of mathematics. I think these are great. They help substantiate one’s place in the world and can even help unite people with common interests. But, as a teacher, I like to use them to start conversations about mathematics and even to provide teachable moments.

For example, the clock shown here (marketed as the Geek Clock) hangs in my office:  

Geek Clock 

I often catch people looking at this clock when they come in to talk about a nonmathematical issue. Their expressions always give them away—as mathematics enthusiasts, as mathematics appreciators, or even as mathematics loathers. My goal is never one of conversion but of conversation. When I sense that the moment is right, I will ask, “Which of those expressions make sense to you?” I will often admit that there are several that I always have to look up myself. This clock is a great conversation starter, and the discussion often focuses on the person’s mathematics experiences as a student. We can then discuss all sorts of mathematics (from cube roots to infinite decimals) or even why some people have anxiety about mathematics.

Many other mathematical clocks are out there, including some that can instigate a conversation about mathematical errors or lack of precision. A very popular clock that I have seen in a number of places (including colleagues’ offices and classrooms) is this one:

Math Clock with Errors 

I appreciate that the mathematics on this clock is more accessible than that on the Geek Clock, but I am bothered by several things that appear. First, this clock has more than just expressions on it; it contains several equations as well. I could assume that I am supposed to solve equations like –8 = 2 – x for x and use that value, but that is an assumption on my part. More bothersome, though, is the equation 52 – x + x2 = 10. This quadratic equation has two real-number solutions: 7 and –6. When the hour hand is pointing at this equation, could it really be negative six o’clock (other than in the world of mod 13)?

But perhaps the most egregious error can be seen in the expression at 9 o’clock: 3(π–.14). The implication is that pi is exactly equal to 3.14, an inaccuracy that mathematics teachers often hear (and may unwittingly perpetuate). When I see this clock, I can’t help but seize the teachable moment and ask, “Do you see anything wrong with this clock?” I brace myself for the response, “Yes, it has math on it,” and steer the conversation back to the mathematics that is presented on the clock—mindful that my goal is not to shame but to educate.

We must continue to make time for mathematics in our own lives as well as those around us. I love the exactitude that much of mathematics is built on, but I am also mindful that not everyone sees things the same way that I do.

I still can’t help being not only a math geek but also a mathematics teacher.

 


Jeffrey WankoJeffrey J. Wanko teaches mathematics methods courses at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. He is interested in the development of students’ logical reasoning skills using puzzles.

 


I have the second clock in my classroom (a gift from friends). And I have spoken to students that look at it about the inaccuracies you described. The pi thing and the quadratic bother me the most. But my students think it's cool and there aren't very many math things that most of my students think are cool.
Posted by: CarolynV_06513 at 5/23/2014 4:13 PM


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