# Author Archives: Ethan Demme

### Abacus and Algorithm: A History of Math

We often teach mathematics as if it were ahistorical, as if all mathematical insights – from the concept of zero to theories of infinite sets – were known always and everywhere. Studying the history of math allows us to see mathematics as an ongoing conversation that has its roots in the earliest of human civilizations. In her book *The Abacus and The Cross*, scholar Nancy Marie Brown introduces us to a medieval mathematician named Gerbert (later Pope Sylvester II), the man responsible for introducing algebra to medieval Europe and for giving us the place-value system that we still use all these centuries later.

## The Quadrium

Brown notes that during his days in a French monastery, Gerbert was instructed in the quadrium, the four-fold foundation of knowledge in arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music that had been formalized by Alcuin of York during Charlemagne’s reign. In these studies, Gerbert was heavily influenced by the thinking of the early philosopher Boethius who taught on the *musica mundana*: the Music of the Spheres. For Boethius, the turning of the astronomical spheres produced a heavenly music that held the stars together. This music was believed to parallel the *musica humana* which held together the body and soul. This concept extends forward beyond Gerbert and finds itself most famously recorded in Dante’s *Paradiso* wherein he writes of “the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.” In short, for Gerbert, the qadrium offered an integrated view of the cosmos and of man’s place in that cosmos.

## The Abacus

Gerbert used visual aids to teach the quadrivium, including a wooden sphere to show the motion of the planets, an elaborate abacus, and, the one-stringed instrument known as a monochord. An abacus was an elaborate counting machine, first pioneered by the Romans (see below), and the rudimentary basic for both the calculator and the computer.

Gerbert used a shield-maker to assemble a light, counting board version of abacus that he used to teach his students. Notably, because Gerbert had studied in Muslim Spain, he used Arabic numerals. What are Arabic numerals? They’re the notation you use in everyday math: 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9. Prior to Gerbert, Roman numerals were used, or letter notation.

Introducing Arabic numerals was not the only lasting contribution Gerbert made. As Brown explains:

Gerbert’s abacus board introduced the place-value method of calculating that we still use today.

Specifically, each column represented a power of ten. “The ‘ones’ column was placed farthest to the right, and the numbers increased by a multiple of ten.” Incredibly, “with twenty-seven columns, Gerbert could add, subtract, multiply, or divide an octillion (10^{27}).” Gerbert called these columns “intervals,” which was likely an allusion to Boethius’ use of the word in music theory. He also called any number put in the first column a “digit” which is Latin for finger. Gerbert gives detailed instructions for how to count on your fingers, but those instructions will likely strike you as strange: for example, “when you say one, bend the left little finger and touch the middle line of the palm with it. When you say two, bend the third finger to the same place.”

As another fun but important aside, one of Gerbert’s near contemporaries, Ralph of Laon, helps to explain why then (as now), counting begins with the “ones column.” Trying to explain the concept of zero, Ralph of Laon writes: “even though it signifies no number, it has its uses.” It was only much later that zero as a concept came to signify a number. In Gerbert’s mathematics, zero is mostly a placeholder, whereas for us zero signifies an actual number. Aside from this shift in thought, Brown writes, “For a thousand years, we have added, subtracted, multiplied, and divided essentially the same way Gerbert taught his students at the cathedral school in Reims.”

## Adelard’s Algorithm

The main transition between Gerbert’s math and our own was the introduction of Adelard’s algorithm in the in the 12th century. Brown writes:

The step from Gerbert’s abacus to Adelard’s algorithm was very small. The main difference between the two ways of calculating was that the pre-drawn column lines of the abacus board disappeared; they were no longer needed once the place-value system was fully understood. In the algorithm, placement on the page alone distinguished a one from a ten or a hundred, and the use of zero to fill the empty space became standard.

Ralph of Laon was right: zero really does have its uses. And in case the word algorithm caught your attention, note that it was this development in mathematics (first initiated by the Muslim scholar al-Khwarizmi, from whose name the word algorithm is derived) that eventually paved the way for binary coding, and thus for the algorithms that power our computers and smartphones.

I hope this brief overview of Gerbert’s mathematics has piqued your interest in the history of mathematical thought. If you want to introduce your student to more history of math, check out The Story of Mathematics: this excellent online resource traces the story of math in ancient Sumerian and Babylonian culture all the way through to important developments in the 20th century.

### Euclid on Playing with Math Manipulatives

Imagine the following scene:

A three year old child (let’s call her Susie) is playing with blocks of varying lengths on the floor. She carefully places one block on top of another, trying to find blocks that match in length.

If you ask Susie what’s she doing, she’ll say, “I’m just playing.” But actually, she’s learning mathematics! And I think if you asked Euclid (one of the world’s first mathematicians and the father of geometry) he’d say she’s learning geometry the right way.

Consider this basic principle from Book 1 of Euclid’s groundbreaking text *Elements*:

Things which equal the same thing also equal one another.

It will likely be many years before Susie will be able to read Euclid’s book and understand what he meant in that statement (listed as “Common Notion 1” in most translations, including this online one.) And yet, when Susie takes block A and places it on top of block B, sees that they match, and then takes block B and places it on block C, she is building a concrete and experiential knowledge of the very principle Euclid is stating here. In high school, knowing this principle as an abstract concept will prove useful in balancing ratios and solving algebraic equations, but the concrete exploration that Susie is engaged in with the blocks on the floor will shape her intuition and make learning algebra much easier.

In Plato’s *Meno* dialogue, Socrates draws geometric figures on the ground in order to demonstrate to an unnamed slave boy how to find twice the area of a square. It is important that Socrates is teaching an uneducated slave: Plato is showing his audience that math is universal and accessible, and thus that mathematical knowledge is not limited to the formally-educated elite. When Socrates draws geometry in the dirt, the slave boy exclaims “I see!” – because math is fundamentally about seeing the world around us and coming to know that world as exciting and intelligible.

Abstract math rooted in symbolic language (numbers, letters, division signs, etc.) is important. For example, without the discipline of calculus, we wouldn’t be able to do the kind of advanced physics needed to send rockets into space. And yet none of us can begin with calculus: we all start our math education by feeling our fingers and playing with blocks – slowly intuiting geospatial concepts like “longer and shorter” and “more and less” well before we have learned the language needed to turn those intuitions into structured thought.

The Math-U-See approach takes seriously the insight of Euclid and Plato. We recognize that building conceptual mastery requires intuition and formal language, concrete visualization and abstraction. This is why at every beginner and intermediate level of Math-U-See, from Primer through Algebra 1, we use manipulatives to teach everything from 1 + 1 to how to factor a polynomial or solve an algebraic equation.

### Alasdair MacIntyre on Improving Math Education

Alasdair MacIntyre is one of the most celebrated contemporary philosophers. His 1981 book *After Virtue* is widely seen as having launched a renewed attention to virtue-ethics in moral philosophy. Throughout his career, MacIntyre has also written a lot about education. I recently discovered a dialogue between MacIntyre and Joseph Dunne on education, and wanted to share some highlights that I think mesh well with our curriculum.

One main idea that is found in all of MacIntyre’s writings is the link between action, practice, tradition, and narrative. Consider the pianist: every day she sits down to work on her scales (action) as part of her participation in the art of piano-playing (a specific practice) in order to learn to play the works of Chopin (the tie to tradition.)

For MacIntyre, action, practice, and tradition are found in the context of community: the pianist, her teacher, her audience, the musicians like Bach who have authored the pieces she is learning to play. Narrative, the story we tell about ourselves, is what makes the context of our actions intelligible and meaningful to us. When the pianist says, “I am a piano player,” she is situating herself within a narrative in which Teacher and Fellow Musicians and Audience Members all have a significant role to play in the formation of her own identity.

In the dialogue, MacIntyre writes:

the teacher should think of her or himself as a mathematician, a reader of poetry, a historian or whatever, engaged in communicating craft and knowledge to apprentices.

In the context of Math-U-See, we want both our parents and students to see themselves as budding mathematicians who are tied to a tradition of mathematics and who are honorary members of a community of mathematicians made up of both those living and those like Euclid, Descartes, and Cantor, who have paved the road we travel on. The exciting truth is that you don’t need to be a math expert to teach math to your kids with our curriculum.

The good news is that age is not a factor in learning the basic facts; and Math-U-See, with its integer blocks as the central point of instruction, gives any learner an ability to commit those facts to memory.

We don’t believe that people are either a math-person or not a math-person: instead, we cite the research of Stanford University professor and researcher Carol Dweck on growth mindset, and we recognize that just like we become virtuous by practicing virtue, we can all grow in our mathematical knowledge by practicing mathematics.

Most of us have at one time or another said, “Why do I have to learn algebra anyway?!”

One reason that this frustration can arise is because math education is often seen as something we are doing as preparation for “real life,” where “real life” is seen as the weighty and important thing and math education just seems…boring.

MacIntyre helps us see why picturing math education in this way is harmful and demoralizing. He writes:

our conception of the school is impoverished if we understand it as merely a preparatory institution, within which the students are contained until they are ready to participate in ‘the real thing.’

Instead, math education is about inviting students to see themselves as already participating in the “real thing.” MacIntyre explains that “…in good schools students already become practitioners of arts, sciences and games, participants in such activities as reading novels and poetry with both discrimination and intensity, devising new experiments in which their mathematical skills can be put to use, drawing and painting and making music to some purpose.”

As exciting as it is to be budding mathematicians, let’s also be honest: learning basic math facts like the multiplication table can sometimes be a dry and wearisome task. Our curriculum development team works hard to spice it up with fun activities, but we recognize that sometimes, especially at the early stages, it just takes some grit to get through it.

In the dialogue, MacIntyre writes:

…small children are able to learn and to exercise some skills while participating in enjoyable and purposeful activities, such as singing or playing some music instrument. But even in those activities there are levels of achievement that require what you call inescapably laborious drills.

But crucially, this labor needs to engage our students and part of that engagement comes through having a multisensory approach. MacIntyre writes: “Children also need to learn to see, to hear, to touch, to taste and to smell; that is, to discriminate the object of the senses and remember what has been thus identified. Consider the varieties of visual object and what has to be learned in order to see what is actually there…”

We agree wholeheartedly.

As Chloe Chen writes: “Well-designed, hands-on activities in the classroom foster connections to real-world situations and increase learner engagement.”

We also want to stress that math manipulatives aren’t just for “little kids”. Our curriculum uses manipulatives to teach everything from 1 + 1 to demonstrating how to factor a polynomial or solve an algebraic equation.

In the final portion of the interview, MacIntyre reflects:

The test of the curriculum is what our children become, not only in the workplace but in being able to think about themselves and their society imaginatively and constructively, able to use the resources provided by the past in order to envisage and implement new possibilities.

This vision of education is strikingly congruent with that of Joseph Aoun, president of Northeastern University. In his book on education, Aoun writes that we need to: “…move beyond the canard that students must choose between an economically rewarding career and a fulfilling, elevated inner life. More than ever before, the capacities that equip people to succeed professionally are the same as the virtues espoused by Cardinal Newman in his paeans to ‘liberal knowledge’ – namely an agile mind, refinement of thought, and facility of expression.”

### The Lost Tools of Math: Recovering Math in a Classical Education [Article]

When it comes to classical education, mathematics is often the Cinderella sister: she lives in the home along with her sisters Literature, Language and History, but she’s not really considered part of the family. There are at least two main reasons for math’s odd position in classical education.

First, for us moderns it can be hard to think classically about math as our worldview is often decidedly different from the ancients. Moreover, most of us do not approach math education like Abraham Lincoln who worked his way through Euclid’s *The Elements* as a self-taught unschooler. And even if we did approach math education in this way, we recognize that innovation in mathematics didn’t end with Euclid and the Greeks, and there is a need to combine study in Euclidean geometry with study in other fields of mathematics, including algebra and calculus.

The second reason math doesn’t fit neatly within classical education is because the classical education movement, while being rightfully skeptical about 20th century math education, has not been critical enough about the lack of emphasis on mastery in the 20th century models.

As will be explored in more depth in this article, a trend in one particular strain within modern American Christian classical education, inspired by Dorothy Sayers’ essay The Lost Tools of Learning, is to divide math into grade levels that are thought to correspond with both the classical trivium and child development theory. In this model, elementary kids are grouped in the grammar stage and drilled in math, middle schoolers are put in the logic stage and taught the abstract symbolism in which mathematics is expressed, and high schoolers are placed in the rhetoric stage and taught the conceptual “whys” of math. One problem with this approach is that it isn’t faithful to the classical trivium model. Perhaps more importantly, the assumed child development theory it is based on is flawed.

In this article, I will survey the history of math education, demonstrate why the Sayers approach to math is in need of modification, and explore an alternative model for classical math education that draws from the insight of deeper sources than Sayers.

## History: How Has It Been Applied?

Classical education has its origins in the interplay of hellenistic and Christian thought, culminating in the formal establishment of the trivium and quadrivium in the university model that dominated the Middle Ages.

Many of the ancient Greeks promoted the idea of four major subjects (later identified as the quadrivium), though recall that Plato infamously advocated for the banishment of poetry (which would have included Homer’s *The Odyssey*, by the way). It wasn’t until the Carolingian Renaissance in the eighth century that the trivium was formally established as the foundation for learning upon which the quadrivium should build.

It was during this time that the concept of a “liberal arts education” composed of seven subjects came to fruition under the influence of Charlemagne’s advisor Alcuin of York (Source). Alcuin’s program makes obvious sense. The texts used in the more specialized technical fields (quadrivium) were all written in classical Latin and Greek, so fluency in Latin and Greek (“grammar”) was a first requirement, followed closely by proficiency in rational argumentation as the preferred method of learning in the university classrooms (“logic” & “rhetoric”).

The modern classical education movement has largely been inspired and influenced by the 20th century essayist and educator Dorothy Sayers and her essay “The Lost Tools of Learning.” In the 20th century, math education in the West shifted its emphasis from geometry to algebra. This shift reflected the modern philosophy of educators such as John Dewey. Whereas in England, the norm had been for students to study Latin and Greek, the latter language preparing them for Euclid and thus geometry, the new education model concerned itself exclusively with practicality and usefulness. Another aspect of this new shift in education was that 19th-century and early 20th-century educators often mistakenly conflated rote memorization with deep understanding. Sayers’ essay is largely a response to both this increasing fragmentation of education and the corresponding lack of attention paid to history and the wisdom found in classical texts.

## Current Times: How It Is Being Misapplied

Dorothy Sayers provides a helpful summary of the ordering of the trivium. The student first learned “the structure of a language” by which she meant learning “what it was, how it was put together, and how it worked.”

Secondly, the student learned “how to use language” which included “how to define his terms and make accurate statements; how to construct an argument and how to detect fallacies in argument.” Finally the student learned “to express himself in language—how to say what he had to say elegantly and persuasively.”

The problem comes when Sayers attempts to tie the trivium in her signature “rough-and-ready fashion” to a theory of child development that she has invented based on anecdotal observation and her memory of being a child. She calls her three stages the Poll-Parrot, the Pert, and the Poetic: in the parrot stage, the child memorizes and repeats back, much like a parrot, while in the Pert stage, the (preteen) starts to talk back (arguing as a form of learning), and in the Poetic, the (misunderstood) teen learns to harness creativity leading to self-expression. This description is very much not a caricature of Sayers’ writing, but if you don’t believe me, just read her essay.

If it sounds like I’m being unduly critical of Sayers, it’s worth noting that she herself admitted her limitations, writing that “my views about child psychology are, I admit, neither orthodox nor enlightened.” And as Martin Cothran, an editor for Memoria Press, writes:

Nor did Sayers herself ever explicitly identify her states of development as classical education—in her speech or anywhere else. In fact, the term ‘classical education’ does not even appear in her essay.

This isn’t to say that Sayers’ essay is not valuable, but rather to say we can and should be critical of it in those places where it serves as an impediment to actual learning.

Unfortunately, Sayers’ error of putting K-12 students into these three boxes has been repeated by many in the modern classical education world. For example, in her book on classical education, Leigh Bortins, founder and CEO of Classical Conversations, writes of “grammar school students” preparing to move into “dialectic, abstract math” and advocates for an emphasis on drilling and memorization for those grammar students. This error suggests that students can be grouped into trivium-based stages, such that elementary kids are drilled in “grammar” (math facts) but not given the opportunity to benefit from the dialectical and rhetorical aspects which would allow them to fully master math, both conceptually and practically.

In practice, this means that children’s’ first experience of math is sheer memorization that lacks any meaningful context and that is divorced from conceptual development. Teaching elementary students to memorize math facts without the underlying context is like having them memorize Latin words without learning what those words mean. To be clear, drilling and repetition is important for learning math because it can increase fluency and simplify a student’s ability to reach solutions as math concepts become more complex, but it is not sufficient as a standalone method regardless of the student’s age or development level.

In many ways, curriculum corresponding to the Sayers’ Parrot/Grammar stage, such as Saxon Math, is what has replaced Euclid in modern math education, in public school as much as in many private and homeschool settings. Whereas Euclid’s model in his book *The Elements* is to begin with axioms and build conceptual knowledge in the form of proofs following from those axioms, the Saxon model has students learn procedures in order to manipulate equations with the goal of producing answers. Neither model is fully sufficient. The Euclid model, at least as it is often practiced in Great Books programs, is akin to a chemistry student who reads a textbook on the periodic table but never participates in a lab experiment. The Saxon model is akin to a student learning how to replicate a chemical reaction in a lab without ever learning about those chemicals and why their combination produces the reaction it does.

## Summary of the Proper Approach

While Bortins repeats Sayers’ error, she also recommends a model that, inasmuch it modifies Sayers’ approach, is much more effective. In this model, students emulate all three aspects of the trivium through the course of working through a single math problem. She writes:

Each problem provides a micro-example for practicing the skills of learning. The students demonstrate that they have mastered the math terms used (grammar) and that they understand the rules and strategy of the problem so they can solve the problem (dialectic.) Finally, they explain how they solved the problem rhetorically, demonstrating that they understand the algorithm.

This is remarkably congruent with the model we employ at Math-U-See which encourages students to “build it, write it, say it, and teach it back” as the method for both achieving and demonstrating mastery of each new concept.

Grammar (the language of math), logic (the why of math), and rhetoric (the application of math) are three distinct but complementary and intermingling disciplines, and each of these disciplines is worth studying. If we are to teach math classically, we ought not attempt to split the trivium into fragments, but to tap into its power as a cohesive and unified foundation of knowledge. The best way to model math education on the trivium is thus to utilize each discipline (grammar, logic, rhetoric) for each concept being taught.

## The Enduring Value of Classical Education

In the context of this article, I see two main benefits to classical education:

**1) Understanding historical ideas in their historical context.**

In his beloved essay “On The Reading of Old Books” C.S. Lewis points out that while ancient writers likely had many mistaken beliefs, it is much less likely that they share the same mistaken beliefs that we have. In other words, since writers of our own age are likely to share the same blind spots, reading old books can help us see and correct errors in our own thinking.

Math-U-See doesn’t really offer this benefit, but neither does any homeschool math curriculum so far as I know. As an example of what I have in mind, there are curricula that teaches science through history including Susan Wise Bauer’s *The Story of Western Science* and Jay Wiles’ new elementary science curriculum.

Of course, for those educators or students who are audacious enough to try it, Euclid’s *The Elements* is readily available both in print and online, and often is published with illustrations making it more accessible. You can also supplement your math with intriguing books on history such as *The Abacus and The Cross* which profiles Gerbert of Aurillac, a medieval Pope and one of the leading mathematicians of his day.

**2) Correcting a 20th century blind spot by restoring emphasis on mastery and promoting a more unified system of knowledge.**

For the medieval university student, mathematics was part of an assumed cosmology, which is to say that every discipline was understood as contributing meaningfully to a unified view of the world and of humanity’s place within that world.

The modern approach to education, which Sayers and classical educators rightfully critique, emphasizes only the practical usefulness of a discipline. In addition, through over-specialization, modern education leads to a body of disconnected ideas and knowledge rather than offering unity. The model I am proposing for teaching math classically does not disconnect the trivium or have students specialize in one aspect of it as part of putting them in a box or stage. Instead, my model says no to the modern impulse to compartmentalize, specialize, and fragment by emphasizing the unity of the trivium in each moment of math education, from the micro level of solving a specific math problem to the broader level of learning a new concept to the macro level of seeing how mastering geometry provides a foundation for trigonometry.

Aristotle took it as axiomatic that all of us, by dint of our very human nature, have a desire to know: his teacher Plato believed that all true knowledge has its origin in wonder. I believe that a classical approach to mathematics that builds conceptually, moves at the pace of the student, and is oriented around an emphasis on mastery is the best model for tapping into our students’ built-in desire to know in a way that connects them to the experience of wonder, and cultivates in them a love for learning for its own sake.

*This was originally published in Digressio.*

### Mathematicians and Historians Need Each Other

“It isn’t easy to be a citizen in 2018.” So begins Ted Underwood’s essay on machine learning. Underwood continues: “we are told to watch out for bots and biased search engines, but skepticism about new media can also make us easy prey for old-fashioned propaganda.”

For Underwood, a central aim for education needs to be preparing “students for a world where information is filtered by computers” and he argues that to do so, “we will need a stronger alliance between the humanities and math.” The rest of his essay explores how “this alliance has two reciprocal parts: cultural criticism of the mathematical models shaping our world, and mathematical inquiry about culture.”

## Humanities and STEM?

The question of the relationship between the humanities and STEM is nothing new. Indeed, undergrads still regularly read texts like CP Snow’s classic 1959 essay “The Two Cultures,” which argued that the humanities and what we now call STEM are fundamentally divided and unable to speak to each other. Underwood subverts Snow’s thesis arguing that the only viable path forward for us is one that integrates the disciplines. We might intuit that humanities can help, well, humanize, STEM, but we might ask, “why does human culture need math? Underwood explains that “The challenges that confront 21st-century citizens are not always arguments that come one by one to be evaluated. Information is more likely to come in cascades, guided both by networks of friends and by statistical models that anticipate our preferences.” As a result of this cascade of information, Underwood argues that “Evaluating sources one by one won’t necessarily tell us whether these computational and social systems are giving us a biased picture. Instead, we need to think about samples and models—in other words, about math.”

## The Connection Between Models

The connection between models in the humanities (i.e., a novel as a model of the human condition) and mathematical models is deeper than it may appear. Underwood illustrates this point with algorithms. He explains that in 21st century computing…

Instead of manually writing algorithms that directly govern a computer’s decisions, we often ask computers to write their own instructions by modeling the problem to be solved.

To illustrate this, he explains how email filters spam:

Undesirable email comes in many different shapes, and it would be hard to write an algorithm that could catch them all. A more flexible approach begins by collecting examples of messages that human readers have rejected, along with messages they approved. Then we ask the computer to write its own instructions, by observing differences between the two groups.

In other words, algorithms are models that continually update themselves to function better. This form of computing is known as machine learning, and as Underwood explains, “machine learning increasingly shapes human culture: the votes we cast, the shows we watch, the words we type on Facebook all become food for models of human behavior, which in turn shape what we see online.” He then notes that “since this cycle can amplify existing biases, any critique of contemporary culture needs to include a critique of machine learning.” That latter point means that just as we have a tradition of literary criticism that digs into the stories we tell in order to critique aspects that our problematic in service to helping us become better moral agents or citizens or lovers, so also we need to critique the algorithms that, for example, reinforce unhealthy and addictive behavior on social media. And since the English department has been a place where this criticism has flourished, programmers might learn a lot from taking some English classes, and on the other hand, English majors might benefit from taking a programming course and learning to think in code as another language.

## Integrating Humanities and STEM

Integrating the humanities and STEM is not just helpful for ethics. The integration can also help us better understand and interpret the world: put differently, the integration can help us move closer to truth. Underwood writes that “to be appropriately wary, without succumbing to paranoia, students need to understand both the limits and the valid applications of technology.” And he suggests that “humanists can contribute to both halves of this educational project, because we’re already familiar with one central application of machine learning—the task of modeling fuzzy, changeable patterns implicit in human behavior.”

Now, the models of the world produced by the novelist may strike as “slippery and unscientific,” but Underwood asks us to recall that “machine learning can also be slippery and unscientific.” He writes: “Remember that we resorted to machine learning because we couldn’t invent a simple, universal definition of spam. Instead, we had to draw on the tacit knowledge of human readers who had rejected email for a range of reasons. A model based on this sort of evidence will never be stable. It will have to be updated every few years, as old scams die out and new ones emerge.” In other words, while total objectivity is impossible, some models are better than others at getting us closer to truth, and learning to discern between models is an essential part of a well-rounded education.

The integration that Underwood recommends is also essential for dealing with untrustworthy politicians and political pundits. Underwood explains that “tech leaders who argue that machine learning is more objective than other knowledge cannot be trusted. But we should just as fiercely distrust political leaders who use the perspectival complexity of the internet to imply that real knowledge is impossible, everything is fake, and we can only fall back on affinity and prejudice.” He stresses that “it is possible to build real knowledge by comparing perspectives from different social contexts. Historians have long known how.” The good historian sifts through all sorts of past culture – religious tomes and tax records, political treatises and recovered coinage – to figure out which accounts of history are most plausible. That skill-set parallels the work needed to sift through scientific studies, for example, to determine what is most plausible.

Underwood concludes his argument by reminding us that in order to understand ourselves and our world “we will need numbers as well as words.”

## Further Reading

Underwood’s writing reminds me of two books that have shaped my thinking on this theme.

• *Actual Minds, Possible Worlds* explores the power of literature as a pathway to this important ability to imagine new possibilities.

• *Robot-Proof: Higher Education in The Age of Intelligence* blends theoretical and practical.

### What Does Homeschooling in the Military Look Like?

In a recent post on the Department of Education blog, the staff interviewed a military homeschool family. The writers introduce the interview by noting:

When asked to share their thoughts on the benefits of school choice and their homeschool experience, this military family did what they do every day: they turned the occasion into a learning opportunity. Dan, his wife Jenna, and their six kids gathered at the dinner table to shape a response – as individual, independent thinkers and as a family.

The family shared that what led them to homeschool was a mix of several factors:

• Their oldest child has Cystic Fibrosis and is especially susceptible to sickness in the classroom.

• Dan’s career as a Naval officer means the family moves a lot and homeschooling helps make the transitions easier.

• The customizability of homeschooling helps the children overcome learning challenges.

• The ability to choose curriculum allows the family to teach in keeping with their values.

When asked about what their homeschooling looks like in practice, the family responded:

We would describe our homeschool as academically rigorous, but eclectic and fun. We spend time researching and selecting curricula that best fit our family and our days together. Reading, writing, arithmetic, speaking, history, science, foreign language are all very important to us. Our ultimate goals, though, are that our kids would love (and know how) to learn, love to read, and love to see the beauty of the great things in life – God, nature, literature, art, music, recreation, travel, people, relationships.

Our kids are heavily involved in music and they enjoy athletic activities. We travel in the areas we are stationed, as well as when the Navy moves us to our next destination. We’ve had wonderful learning experiences in national parks and historical landmarks, as well as museums and nature.

Family read-aloud books are integral to our teaching and learning, even though our kids range in age from two to fourteen years. In fact, on Fridays, we parents read through Shakespeare with our three oldest kids. For us, the greatest part of exercising this school choice of homeschooling is getting to spend ample time as a family.

At the end of the interview, the family was asked about what school choice means to them. They responded: “School choice allows us the freedom to engage in the aforementioned activities and educational methods amidst health concerns, military moves, learning and behavioral challenges, and curriculum choices based on our worldview.”

At Demme Learning, we feel honored that quite a few service members use our Math-U-See and Spelling-You-See curricula. We are so thankful for their service, and offer them a 10% discount on all their orders. __Contact us for more details.__

## Further Reading

Nathalie is mother to two intelligent, capable girls and doting wife to a handsome naval aviator. As with the family featured on the Ed.Gov blog, Nathalie and her family have found homeschooling to be a great fit. She wrote this in a recent blog post:

One might think it ambitious to consider homeschooling in an environment riddled with uncertainty and constant change. However, home education has proven to be a steady anchor for our family. (Forgive the pun. I couldn’t resist. Go Navy!) It is one element of our lives that we can truly say is consistent, no matter our destination. Even still, providing a stable home education for our children while navigating the tumultuous seas of military life requires a boatload of flexibility, creativity, and courage.

## BONUS: Free Homeschool 101 eBook

Considering homeschooling?

Download our free eBook to learn about:

☑ Homeschool styles.

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☑ Homeschool resources.

### Building Data Literacy [TED Talk]

In his TED Talk at the London Business School, speaker Alex Edmans considered the question of “…what to trust in a ‘post-truth’ world?” Edmans opened his talk with an exploration of confirmation bias: our propensity to accept a story (eg., a newspaper article) we like as being true, without being duly critical.

For example, if we read a story that interprets a data set in ways that support our preconceived beliefs, we rarely stop to ask, “Are there alternative explanations that can explain the data just as well if not better than my own explanation?” Edmans explains:

A story is not fact, because it may not be true. A fact is not data; it may not be representative if it’s only one data point. And data is not evidence — it may not be supportive if it’s consistent with rival theories.

How, then, can we know what is true? Edmans recognizes that this is a weighty question. He says, “When you’re at the inflection points of life, deciding on a strategy for your business, a parenting technique for your child or a regimen for your health, how do you ensure that you don’t have a story but you have evidence?”

Thankfully, Edmans has three tips which provide some guidance.

### 1) “Read and Listen to People You Flagrantly Disagree With”

Edmans points out that even if 90% of what they say seems wrong to you, there might still be 10% that you can learn from. Edmans recommends that you “surround yourself with people who challenge you, and create a culture that actively encourages dissent.”

### 2) “Listen to Experts”

Edmans recognizes that this is “perhaps the most unpopular advice that I could give you.” And of course the experts are often wrong, so how can we know who to trust? Edman suggests that “we should critically examine the credentials of the authors. Just like you’d critically examine the credentials of a potential surgeon. Are they truly experts in the matter, or do they have a vested interest?” And secondly, Edmans says, “We should pay particular attention to papers published in the top academic journals.” He notes that academics are often accused of being detached from the real world. But he explains that “this detachment gives you years to spend on a study. To really nail down a result, to rule out those rival theories, and to distinguish correlation from causation. And academic journals involve peer review, where a paper is rigorously scrutinized.”

### 3) “Pause Before Sharing Anything”

Edmans reminds us of the Hippocratic oath which states “First, do no harm.” Edmans warns that “what we share is potentially contagious, so be very careful about what we spread. Our goal should not be to get likes or retweets. Otherwise, we only share the consensus; we don’t challenge anyone’s thinking. Otherwise, we only share what sounds good, regardless of whether it’s evidence.”

## Further Reading

• The way of thinking that Edmans’ talk is designed to foster is called Data Literacy. In his book *Robot-Proof: Higher Education in The Age of Intelligence*, Joseph E. Aoun, president of Northeastern University, highlights data literacy as a must needed emphasis for contemporary education. He argues that “there is little use in accumulating massive amounts of data unless we can arrange it into useful information and thence into understanding.” Data literacy allows us to benefit the data “by shifting through these giant sets of data to find the correlations in them that yield useful findings.”

• I’m never wrong, except when I’m disagreeing with my wife. Okay, fine, I admit that I’m often wrong and I’m not always the quickest to acknowledge when I’m wrong. Recently I watched Julia Galef’s TEDx talk on why we think we’re right — even when we’re wrong. Learn more about Galef’s insight on my website.

### What This Homeschooled Chess Champion Teaches Us About Talent

Fabiano Caruana is really good at chess. The 26 year old American is a grandmaster, and he is ranked second in the world after narrowly losing to reigning Norwegian Magnus Carlsen. According to his website, Caruana has been playing chess since he was five, but it was age 10 that he began to garner attention, after becoming the youngest American to defeat a Grandmaster in an official tournament. By age 12, he had earned the international title of FIDE Master. And then at age 14, he became the youngest grandmaster in US history, beating the record set by Bobby Fischer.

Caruana was homeschooled, and it was only because his parents believed in him that he was able to become the chess player he is today. CNBC reports:

As Caruana began getting more and more serious about the game, former world chess champion Garry Kasparov stepped in to warn his parents that a career in chess was “too risky” and that it would be difficult to make a living.

Thankfully his parents “disregarded the advice and let their son play chess while homeschooling him.” Lou Caruana explains that “we knew he was extremely intelligent, so we did have a degree of confidence that with or without formal education, he would be O.K.” Lou also explains that Fabiano “spent a tremendous amount of time reading, and so he is somewhat self-educated.” Commenting on Caruana’s education, journalist Daaim Shabazz writes:

His evolution makes a good case study for homeschooling and other ways of learning that enable young people to break free from the static environment of formal education in order to pursue their passions. It also makes for a good case study of what talent looks like in its earliest stages.

While Caruana likely had a lot of natural talent, his success as a chess player is tied to specific habits of mind that helped him develop that talent to become a champion. Shabazz notes that “one of the things I saw in Fabiano early on was not being afraid to play the strongest competition available. He didn’t fear losing. I once saw Caruana lose a game when he was around 9 or 10 and he didn’t seem to carry any of the usual childish pouting from a loss.” Shabazz speculates that “this self-control may have been developed because of his early diet of competitive open tournaments. In these competitions you must forget about a bad result quickly or risk distraction in the next game. In a recent interview, he mentioned his ability to come back from losses as one of his top strengths.”

## The Power of Grit

Angela Duckworth – a psychology professor and 2013 MacArthur Fellow – has a word for the resiliency of mind that allows Caruana bounce back from losses: grit. In her book *Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance* she explains that the more she paid attention to both her teaching and the research she was conducting, the more she realized that innate talent isn’t a reliable indicator to future success and that instead it is an attitude of grit and a willingness to grow that best predicts student success. Duckworth introduces us to David, a freshman in a high school algebra course. David’s first math test came back with a D. In her interview with David, she asked him how he dealt with that disappointing result. He said: “I did feel bad – I did – but I didn’t dwell on it. I knew it was done. I knew I had to focus on what to do next. So I went to my teacher and asked for help. I basically tried to figure out, you know, what I did wrong. What I needed to do differently.” Duckworth reports that “by senior year, David was taking the harder of Lowell’s two honors calculus courses.”

The development of grit is aided by moving away from what Stanford University professor and researcher Carol Dweck calls a “fixed mindset” and instead embracing a “growth mindset.” In our blog post on growth mindset, we explain: “those with a fixed mindset believe that talent, intelligence, and ability are set and unchangeable—genetically determined or a gift that you either have or you don’t.” In contrast, “those with a growth mindset believe that through effort and perseverance we have the ability to improve and grow in any area to which we set our minds. Growth does not discount the existence of innate talent. Instead, it recognizes that natural talent undeveloped due to lack of effort will never reach its full potential.” We note that “in general, those with less “natural ability” that work diligently will ultimately achieve more than those “gifted” who do not cultivate their skills.” (Our Learning and Development Specialist Lisa Shumate has written this helpful post for tips on cultivating a growth mindset in our children and students.)

## You Can Improve Yourself

While most of us will never be as good at chess as Fabiano Caruana, with the right kind of practice, we can all make meaningful improvements in chess or any other activity (yes, including math!). The book to read on good practice strategy is *The Talent Code* [my review] by Daniel Coyle. He opens his book by asking:

How does a penniless Russian tennis club with one indoor court create more top-twenty women players than the entire United States? How does a humble storefront music school in Dallas, Texas, produce Jessica Simpson, Demi Lovato, and a succession of pop music phenoms? How does a poor, scantily educated British family in a remote village turn out three world-class writers?

And he spends the rest of the book trying to answer those questions.

Coyle found that the world’s most accomplished athletes, musicians, chess players, etc., all sharpen their skill with a shared kind of practice, what he refers to as deep practice. Coyle explains that deep practice is characterized by “slow, fiftful struggle” where people purposely operate “at the edges of their ability” with full recognition that this means failing more often than succeeding. Coyle explains this paradox, noting that “experiences where you’re forced to slow down, make errors, and correct them – as you would if you were walking up an ice-covered hill, slipping and stumbling as you go – end up making you swift and graceful without your realizing it.” The key is to “choose a goal just beyond your present abilities” because “thrashing about blindly doesn’t help” but “reaching does.”

Coyle also writes about the coaching style he encountered most often. He notes that while our Hollywood stereotype of the successful coach emphasizes long, inspirational speeches and dramatic levels of energy and excitement, that isn’t what he found to be most successful. Instead he writes that the coaches were “quiet, even reserved” and that they “listened far more than they talked.” Rather than giving inspirational speeches, these coaches “spent most of their time offering small, targeted, highly specific adjustments.” These coaches had “an extraordinary sensitivity to the person they were teaching, customizing each message to each student’s personality.” Daniel Coyle calls these coaches “talent whispers.”

Now get out there and play some chess!

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### Math…In the Mail?

The Global Family Research Project recently highlighted a new initiative in Michigan to get kids and parents learning math together by sending them materials in the mail. The Project reports:

Math in the Mail kits are designed to develop mathematical skills in three-year-olds by providing the tools that parents, guardians, and other caregivers need to build positive family relationships around math learning.

## What’s Included in the Kits?

Each kit includes:

• Materials designed for hands-on play.

• Ideas for activities with the provided materials and extension activities using items found in any home, as well as a description of how these activities help children learn.

• A storybook that corresponds to the kit’s main topic that parents and children can enjoy together.

Inspired by Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library campaign which sends free books to low-income families, “the goal of Math in the Mail is to reach those families who will benefit from the materials most and have the least financial resources available.” Through this program, “children who meet economic eligibility requirements receive six kits in the mail over the course of a year.” The program is “currently serving Michigan children from Arenac, Bay, Clare, Gladwin, Gratiot, Isabella, Midland, and Saginaw counties” and these kits have reached more than “1,700 families from low-income homes to date.”

This initiative is a great example of how civil society can support family learning. The report explains that various organizations collaborated to make Math in The Mail possible. Specifically, “museums, libraries, and early childhood programs all help us get the word out about the work we do, and help us recruit families into the program by sharing our information with those who visit their spaces. Also, a variety of groups—like the Girl Scouts, parks and recreation departments, and local businesses—partner with us around our math kits, a win-win for everyone.”

### Loris Malaguzzi on the Active Child

Loris Malaguzzi was an Italian educator and the founder of the Reggio Emilia approach to education, which is similar to other models like Montessori and Waldorf. Like other theorists of the late 20th century, including Bruner, Piaget, and Vygotsky, Malaguzzi centers everything on the active child who, together with a nurturing and experienced guide, actively constructs her own learning. At the heart of the Reggio Emilia approach is an emphasis on personalized learning, an emphasis that is a cornerstone of our education philosophy at Demme Learning. In a seminar he gave in Italy in 1993, Malaguzzi provides wisdom for the importance of personalized learning in the context of meaningful relationships.

Malaguzzi says that we should never “think of the child in the abstract.” Instead, we need to give close attention to the particulars of the child right in front of us, recognizing that she is “already tightly connected and linked to a certain reality of the world — she has relationships and experiences.” Malaguzzi says that “we cannot separate this child from a particular reality” and so must recognize that she brings “these experiences, feelings, and relationships” into the classroom. This is also true of you, the parent and educator. He writes that “when you enter the school in the morning, you carry with you pieces of your life — your happiness, your sadness, your hopes, your pleasures, the stresses from your life. You never come in an isolated way; you always come with pieces of the world attached to you.”

This emphasis on relationship has significant implications for the structure of education, in form, content, pacing, etc. Malaguzzi points out that “the environment you construct around you and the children also reflects this image you have about the child. There’s a difference between the environment that you are able to build based on a preconceived image of the child and the environment that you can build that is based on the child you see in front of you— the relationship you build with the child, the games you play.” He observes that “an environment that grows out of your relationship with the child is unique and fluid.” Recognizing this unique fluidity should lead us as educators to strive for flexibility as much as we can. As Malaguzzi advises, “we need to be open to what takes place and able to change our plans and go with what might grow at that very moment both inside the child and inside ourselves.”

This approach to education also asks us to take seriously both our emotions and the emotions of our children and students. Malaguzzi writes: “Teachers need to learn to see the children, to listen to them, to know when they are feeling some distance from us as adults and from children, when they are distracted, when they are surrounded by a shadow of happiness and pleasure, and when they are surrounded by a shadow of sadness and suffering.”

Malaguzzi also has powerful insight especially relevant to families who have adopted children from troubled backgrounds. He says: “What we have to do now is draw out the image of the child, draw the child out of the desperate situations that many children find themselves in. If we redeem the child from these difficult situations, we redeem ourselves.” This reminds me of the book *The Connected Child* by Drs. Karyn Purvis and David Cross which my wife Anna and I read as part of our training to be adoptive parents. In that book, the authors write that “with compassion, you can look inside your child’s heart and recognize the impairments and deep fear that drive maladaptive behavior – fears of abandonment, hunger, being in an unfamiliar environment, losing control, and being hurt.” Like Malaguzzi, the authors of *The Connected Child* ask us to recognize the complex ways that interior grief can manifest itself in external behavior. They write that “a child’s grief can take many shapes. It might look like opposition, agitation, aggression, withdrawal, or obvious sorrow” and they caution that “unless adopted children can authentically express their losses, sadness, and emotions, they will never be able to connect to you or others in meaningful ways.”

## Further Reading

5 Tips for Reducing Math Anxiety in Your Children