A couple of nights ago, I had one of those frustrating realizations, where the understanding was there, but the knowing of the rules and the exact steps of what to do escaped me. Was this during some intense testing session? Sort of. Was a lot on the line? In a way, yes. Did I find myself a bit aggravated? I did! So what could possibly be so unnerving and frustrating? Sitting down with my older daughter as we tried to unravel and make sense, to both our satisfactions, multi-variable problems and systems of equations.
First, a little background. Math has never been a really strong subject for me, at least not without a lot of tweaking and playing around. I know how to work formulas. If I can put them into scripts or programs, I can make them work. I can even appreciate a lot of the arcana that goes into numbers and the theory behind them, but some of these questions were just driving me crazy.
The funny thing was, as I was going through some of these problems, and I was breaking free the calcified neurons that probably haven’t thought about, much less used, a lot of this stuff in at least fifteen years (seriously, it was back in 1997 that I went on my marathon mathematics quest and made it through Intermediate Algebra up through Calculus 1 in a little under four semesters), I realized that, while we can understand this stuff at a lofty and philosophical level, there just is no substitute to going through and solving problems. You just have to suck it up and work this stuff. It’s like going to the gym, training for a marathon or… learning to code. The more you do it, the better you get. The less you do it, the harder it is to recall what you need. Fortunately, my son, who is much closer to this, was able to come in and check our work, and make sure I wasn’t leading my daughter on the wrong path.
We often think we are in a good place, and that we have a good handle on ideas. That may be true, but just understanding the ideas is a small part of the story. Having the skills and being able to flex the muscles associated with those skills is the much bigger part, and yeah, it really does come down to use it or lose it.