You know how most high school yearbooks include predictions about what each of the seniors will do in life, often humorously written? The prediction in my senior yearbook was that I would teach calculus to preschoolers. It turned out to be a surprisingly accurate one, as I did spend much of my early life volunteering with young children and many of my first years as an educational professional teaching calculus—albeit to high school students, not to preschoolers.
I taught math not so much because I adored the field of mathematics, but because I loved the many light bulb moments it allowed me to create and facilitate for students. For me, mathematics is all about problem solving: taking something for which you don’t have an answer; considering all the information about, and facets of, the problem; exploring approaches for tackling it; trying approaches, failing, and trying different approaches; and finally producing a solution that gives you a helpful answer to your initial problem. What a fun enterprise! When taught well, the study of math strengthens our students' abilities to tussle with challenging problems in all sorts of fields and settings. It builds their analytical and creative muscles, and it increases their self-confidence and feelings of competence and power.
Some people might think of the study of math as a solo enterprise, but mathematical learning is greatly enhanced when students are expected and encouraged to share their ideas, to question each other’s approaches, to work collaboratively on problems. Likewise, some folks might view it as an area of study that does not use our communication skills. But great math instruction asks students to express their ideas concisely and clearly, both orally and in writing. I know English teachers who swear that they can tell when their English students have completed a rigorous geometry unit about writing proofs, as their writing in English class becomes markedly clearer and more precise.
No, I never actually have taught calculus to preschoolers. But I am thrilled by all that I see our Ellis students—of all ages—doing as they engage in the study of mathematics. Light bulbs are lighting up all over campus!