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Math and Physics as Play

by Jacob Backon, Mathematics and Science Faculty

When I tell people that I teach physics and geometry they usually respond with a grimace or a sound usually reserved for the taste of something rotten. This is almost always followed up with some sort of admission of defeat at the hands of either or both of these subjects. Occasionally, someone will tell me they loved geometry but hated algebra as if the two were competing vacation locales. In many ways, this is like admitting that you love words but hate reading. It seems to me that many people’s opinions of math and physics are negative.

So, armed with this knowledge, how do I walk into a classroom and presume to teach high school students these two subjects? How do I deal with the students who are convinced they are bad at math at age 14? Or the student who hears adults implicitly give them permission not to try by rationalizing their own insecurities and failures in the subject? Each academic subject carries with it a stigma, and each teacher must break through this stigma to engage his or her students.  Math and physics, however, have a particularly strong negative stigma that can result in an almost clinical detriment to learning.

I have long wondered why math and its applications in physics cause such acute anxiety. Students often tell me that they don’t like the fact that there is only one right answer, a statement that becomes less true with the more math they learn. In truth, I think this is what students hear from adults who grew up in a culture of drilling and rote memorization. I can distinctly remember memorizing multiplication tables without having any idea why I was doing it. Imagine if we forced kids to memorize 12+12+12+12+12+12+12+12+12+12 and then told them what 12×10 was. They would think math was awesome! Physics suffered from the same sterility. Most adults remember a seemingly endless barrage of equations and problems about situations that students couldn’t hope to relate to. Combine all of this with the fact that math and physics teachers tend to be very good at their subjects and never struggled themselves, and the consequential loss of empathy can be devastating.

This belief that math and physics are an endless toil of numbers, letters, and meaningless blocks sliding down ramps has permeated to the youth of today despite significant advances in pedagogy. In this respect, I find that I am not just a math/physics teacher, but also a math/physics therapist. My first job in any class is to help the kids feel comfortable and open-minded about the subject. They need to forget everything they thought they knew about math/physics and just play.

What do I mean by play? This is not a word normally associated with math or physics and sounds like it might be . . .fun. In geometry, for example, we teach that the entire branch of mathematics is built from a few basic assumptions about space. Once you learn the rules, you are free to explore the consequences of your assumptions as you manipulate lines, angles, shapes, and eventually solids. The students truly have the power as long as they follow the deductive process of proving their claims. This is where the course truly shines as students learn how to make an argument and think critically about others’ arguments. Now there definitely isn’t only one right answer, and students can take ownership of their work.

Physics is similar. In the freshman physics class, we teach physics for the purpose of completing a specific engineering design challenge. The physics doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it serves a purpose. The challenges are open-ended and have many different solutions. Students are given several days to build prototypes and test their ideas without fear of failure or reprimand. They learn to document and reflect on their ideas, and, as long as they can justify their design decisions, they can be proud of the product they create.

In both of these situations, math and physics become playgrounds for the imagination. Just as creative writers must follow the rules of grammar and choose characters, setting, and plot, my students learn to follow the rules of geometry and the physical world so that they may begin to play with the various consequences of the choices they make. All of this is done in a low-pressure environment where failure only leads to deeper understanding and an opportunity to improve. There is a time and a place for only one right answer, but in our increasingly global world those times are becoming less and less frequent. By teaching students to play, I hope to give them the power and confidence to tackle more authentic problems in the future, problems that are full of gray areas and have myriad potential political and socioeconomic consequences. Hopefully, when my students have children of their own, they will look forward to their kids’ math and science education and feel confident in their ability to play in the world around them.

Jacob Backon teaches with a dual assignment in the Mathematics and Science Departments.  He holds a B.A. from Bard College and a M.S. from Ohio University.  A native to independent school life, Jacob grew up on the campus of Choate.  He coaches JV soccer in the fall.

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