Math Geek Mom: Making Mistakes (Sometimes in Public)

When I was in graduate school, one of our teachers suggested to those of us planning to go on to teach college that we should “never do algebra in public”. For some reason, that bit of advice has stuck with me over the years, even becoming a mantra among my math majors here at Ursuline College. Whenever I am confronted with a difficult problem that I have not previously worked out, I find myself sidestepping the issue by saying that I don’t want to “do algebra in public.”

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July 16, 2009

When I was in graduate school, one of our teachers suggested to those of us planning to go on to teach college that we should “never do algebra in public”. For some reason, that bit of advice has stuck with me over the years, even becoming a mantra among my math majors here at Ursuline College. Whenever I am confronted with a difficult problem that I have not previously worked out, I find myself sidestepping the issue by saying that I don’t want to “do algebra in public.”

Well, it seems that my best efforts were sidetracked last week when I claimed in my blog entry that the United States is 314 years old. Wow, did it age quickly! It seems like only yesterday that I was a young teenager, celebrating the country’s bicentennial. Of course, that was a “typo”, and it should have read 233 years, not 314 years. I don’t know where the number 314 came from (it is not even a transposition of the correct numbers!), but assume that I just typed in the number wrong. Of course, I can do the subtraction (or, as my daughter says, “subcrackion”) I think this happened in part because I proofread my words very carefully, since I am not a member of the English department, but I know I didn’t proofread the number value, which I obviously should have. This is pretty embarrassing for someone who teaches math for a living!

Of course, mistakes are a part of life. I thought of this recently as I watched my daughter attempt to learn to ride a bike without training wheels. Every time she felt even a little “off kilter”, she would put her feet down and, more often than not, fall over. It reminded me of her efforts to learn to swim; every time she starts to sink a little, she puts her feet down on the pool floor. Anything that takes any skill comes with a learning curve, something that we all learned as we progressed through our respective programs in graduate school.

I told my story of the incorrect math to my current students this summer in a class that ends next week. Many of them, with degrees in the humanities, came into the class with fear of what they would find, and it seems that they are doing just fine. As these students are all in a Master’s program, they are used to learning things quickly and perfectly, and not used to making mistakes. I encourage them, however, to allow themselves to make mistakes, since making mistakes in math is a real learning tool. Once we make a mistake and figure out what we did wrong, it is unlikely that we will make that mistake again. They, however, had a different take on the matter of my typo. They suggested I just claim I put that typo in to see if anyone was really reading my entries. Of course, that is not true. A better assessment of the situation is that I learned my lesson, and will be sure to proofread my math more carefully from now on.

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