D minus

I made sure that I saw that “minus” after the D. Not saying I wouldn’t have written this article without it, but the inclusion of that seemed petty, filled with an almost cartoonish malice a la some dark authoritarian figure in Pink Floyd’s nightmarish state of education.

So, like with Newton’s Third Law of Motion — for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction — this article is my reaction.

She failed a test about improper and mixed fractions. You know, converting between the two and such. Frankly, I hope she failed them because she, like thousands before her, just absolutely hated fractions. The fact that in 2019 my daughter received such a mark — a mark that still has that negative of ring of “D is for Dummies” — is more of an indictment on the failure of what is still generally accepted in some math communities than my daughter’s interest/abilities in mathematics.

As some of you know, my daughter has, in spite of that permanent stain of fraction ineptitude, a positive and joyful interest in mathematics.

She knows her primes up until 223(thank you Prime Climb). She loves figuring out operations to create numbers(thank you Albert’s Insomnia). She loves probability/strategy(thank you Yahtzee). She loves drawing geometric configurations for social connections of 3 and 4 people(thank you Ramsey Numbers).

We not only jettison whole numbers for a contrived fascination with fractions, we do it freakishly early. This dumping is a bloody slap in the face to an actual branch of mathematics — number theory — which consumed the likes of Gauss, Germain, Ramanujan(who incidentally did cool work with continued fractions).

But, that is why I am not worried about her mark in 5th grade fractions. I mean, I am not worried about marks in general — it’s a sorting tool for adults packaged off as something for students to get simultaneously excited and worried about.

My daughter is a serious gamer. Check out all the games on her phone.

They run the gamut of different kinds of puzzle/problem solving games. Remind me why one of the reasons we teach mathematics again. There is one game in particular, Gardenscapes, that symbolizes the burgeoning divide between what has been traditionally valued by teachers and what my own daughter values in terms of problem solving.

She is on level 32 now. There are over 2000 levels. This game is not easy. In fact on an earlier level, which she was stuck on for a few days, she humorlessly remarked “I hate this game. It is so frustrating!” The key thing missing, but I tried to allude to, is that my daughter was laughing her head off when she said it. This is what resilience sounds like — enthusiastic proclamation of the joys of frustration. Or, as James Tanton often says, funstration.

I have listened to her strategies when playing this game. She gets the game on both a macro and micro level. She even makes fun of the purchasing part of he game, saying “how dumb do they think they I am to purchase boosters/coins for the game?” Her examination of the entire playing surface, making connections, visualizing potential moves, etc. are exactly some of the long term skills we want kids to learn through mathematics.

The problem is that most of the mathematics is boring and has a currency that is over valued in 2019. My daughter knows the basic meat and potatoes about a fraction. Whole numbers on the other hand, her appetite is pretty boundless.

Sorry, but I would rather have my daughter engaging with the medium(digital) that she enjoys/values to build problem solving skills. How to split 42 cookies with 8 kids isn’t in her wheelhouse — and her and I don’t care if you want it to be part of a larger gate keeping structure of what is valued/important in mathematics.

Actually, it is a gate keeping mess.

Fractions are important because you need it for______________ and you need_________ for _______________. Maybe my daughter “gets” fractions next year or the year after. Maybe she gets them at the end of high school. Maybe she never gets them.

I. don’t. care. Being proficient with them and doing completely meaningless tasks with them like multiplying and dividing them with zero intuitive understanding is something that cannot even begin to compete with what she is gleaning from her playing Gardenscapes.

The skeptics will say that the resilience that kids demonstrate to games doesn’t transfer over to math. Okay. Shouldn’t we wonder why that is and why we are asking that question? That kind of inquisition hints at a hierarchy of knowledge — “yeah, games are fun and all that, but it’s not real math, and at some point kids have to learn things they don’t like…”

Martin Gardner, a beast of a mathematician and writer of over 100 books, still couldn’t shake his “recreational math” label. So, I have zero faith in Gardenscapes dislodging dividing fractions as being more relevant.

A while back there was an article written by Barbara Oakley in The New York Times, that was ode to a narrative filled with classism/elitism with regards to mathematics.

Where to start? How about with the word “Make”, a gentler word than “Force”, which is a direct violation of anything playful and joyful about learning mathematics. Whether my daughter is interested in a STEAM career or not, I sure as hell don’t want her taking this path — not so subtlety marked with seeing math as a performance pursuit.

Hard pass.

Her algebra skills, regardless of what some math teachers might think, isn’t going to be compromised by when/if she becomes fluent with doing sometimes ludicrous gymnastics with them. Primarily because fractions play a minor service task role, making “guest appearances”. If they are playing a role bigger than that, then we are teaching algebra incorrectly. Fractions in algebra usually involve “clearing them”. But, that task is part of a larger sphere of understanding equality of operations.

So Much Math Going On Here Said No Teacher Ever.

That question above is like Level 0 of Gardenscapes. Zero thinking. Zero intuition. Any kids thinking to themselves that the answer is “3ish”?


Mathematics is large. There is nothing contradictory about my daughter loving mathematics, puzzling, and persisting through rich problems and NOT liking/understanding fractions. In fact, it is to be expected.

So, sorry Barbara Oakley. I am not making my daughter practice math/fractions to achieve some status of a math-oriented career.

I am letting my daughter play games so she can be happy.

Oh, and mark my word, she will become a kickass mathematician one day…probably around the same time she cracks level 2000 for Gardenscapes.