This week, a Singaporean math problem caught the world's attention. The Globe and Mail's video department thought that it would be fun to work out the solution. We contacted a great math tutor and she walked us through it.
But our solution was wrong. Well, it just wasn't totally right. We came to the right answer, but the tutor and I both skipped info in the question – specifically, who knew the month and who knew the day (Albert and Bernard, "respectively!"). We proceeded with the solution and published it.
By the time I realized our mistake, the video had been shared hundreds of times. Oh no. In math terms, our mistake was bad. In terms of publishing a not entirely correct video on the Globe site, that mistake was bad, too. How did this happen?
Well, first things first, we corrected the video. There is a new version with an editor's note on it.
Correcting the video was the easy part. Mistakes happen. We must acknowledge, correct and move on. My bigger issue? Math phobia.
When I look at the original video, I can pinpoint the moment it went south. It was as the math tutor was walking me through and I became confused. Instead of leaning in and asking her to be clearer (thereby re-reading the question and catching our error), I laughed and said, "I trust you, Kate." And I let it go.
I would never do that with a different kind of detail in my work. So why did I do it in that moment? I gave up before I even got started, because it's "math." I trusted our tutor and didn't trust my own ability to work it out with some extra time.
Realizing that I gave up on the math so fast was very disappointing. And I'm not alone. So many people I spoke with, some of them my colleagues, all incredibly intelligent people, laughed as well, saying, "This is over my head."
Really? It's a math problem for high schoolers. And while we wring our hands about Canadian students slipping in international standards for math, perhaps we should look to ourselves, the grown-ups. Kids get their culture – awareness, baggage et al. – through us.
I learned a few life lessons from my experience with the Singaporean math problem.
With a math problem, you need to write it out. Take it slowly, step by step. Scratch things out, start again, be persistent. Just like math, life is a process, too. Making a mistake may not be as big a deal as it seems if you go back and think it out again.
Upon reflection, I realized that time was definitely an issue. We were rushing, egged on by the Internet culture of, "First!" That's a problem. Nothing's worth doing fast and wrong.
In order to correct the original video, I watched and rewatched it, feeling worse and worse about the moment I stepped back from the actual math. I regret that moment because I never want my kids to back down from solving a problem. So I called up another expert for some insight.
John Mighton is an incredibly accomplished playwright (artsy, right?), but he has also started a numeracy program called JUMP (Junior Undiscovered Math Prodigies).
As he said, math phobia is a "universal problem," with real consequences for kids as young as kindergarten age.
Mr. Mighton started tackling math in his 30s, going all the way to doing a PhD in it, showing that it's never too late to change the way you identify with math. Inspiration, right there.
And, as the kicker to this entire episode, I was sent a link from the Guardian in which it is explained how there can be TWO answers to the Singaporean math problem. My knee-jerk response? "Two? I hate math!" So I obviously have a ways to go with my feelings about math, but unlearning my phobia is a worthwhile endeavour, I think.
In the meantime, if you ask me, Cheryl's birthday is July 16 and I'm sticking to that.