What does it mean to excel at math?

“In mathematics you don’t understand things. You just get used to them.” ― John von Neumann

John von Neumann made important scientific discoveries in physics, computer science, statistics, economics, and mathematics itself. He was, by all accounts, a genius. Yet, here he is saying he “just got used” to mathematics. While this was probably a tongue-in-cheek reply to a friend, there is some truth to it. Mathematics is a language and anyone can eventually learn to speak it.

Indeed,balls_to_sphere mathematics is the language by which scientists of all fields communicate—from philosophy to physics. And by mathematics, I don’t mean numbers. Scientists communicate ideas through mental pictures which are often represented by symbols invented just for that purpose. Here is an example: think about a ball. Maybe it is a baseball, or a basketball, or—if you are in Europe—a socc…err… football. Maybe it is the Earth or the Sun. Now try to get rid of the details: the stitching, the colors, the size. What is left? A sphere. You just performed the process of abstraction. A sphere is an idea, a mental image that you can’t touch—it doesn’t exist!

sphere_to_ballWhy is this important, anyway? Well, if I can prove things about spheres, then that ought to apply to any ball in the real world. So, formulas for area and volume, for example, equally apply to baseballs, basketballs, soccer balls, and any other ball. Mathematics is a very powerful way of answering infinitely many questions at once!

Now, it is said that to become an expert at anything, you need 10,000 hours of practice. While not a hard-and-fast rule, it seems to work out in terms of acquiring modern language—10,000 hours probably works out to mid-to-late teens for an adept student. Usually, we don’t start practicing real mathematics until well after we have mastered our first language, in late high-school or college. Why not start those 10,000 hours now with your children?

Sounds great, but where do you start? The bad news is that there are no simple rules. The good news is that it doesn’t really matter where you start. With your children, you could practice numeracy, practice puzzles and games, read books, watch science videos, try to code, draw pictures, or just sit in a quiet room and think. As you do these things, encourage generalization and abstraction. Ask questions and let your child ask questions. The correct answers are not important—it is the process that counts.

I was asked recently to share some tips for parents who want their kids to excel at math and do well in the classroom later on. The trouble is, doing well in the classroom—that is, doing well on standardized tests—doesn’t necessarily correlate with understanding the language of mathematics. If you want to do well on standardized tests, then just practice standardized tests. However, if you want your kids to have the powerful tools of abstraction​ at their disposal and possibly also do well on tests, then teach them the language of mathematics.

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