July 24, 2017

Book Review: Learning to Love Math by Judy Willis, MD

Love Math

I just bought the book Leaning to Love Math by Judy Willis MD.  The reason I bought it is because I so thoroughly appreciate some of her videos such as What Makes the Adolescent and Teen Brain So Different and What Should Educators Do About These Differences? available on the ASCD Professional Development website.  In that video she describes adolescents as dopamine junkies always in need of a dopamine fix.  As an educator you can understand the physiology of the adolescent brain and work constructively with nature, or you can adopt an alternative ideology which promotes and perpetuates counter-productive power struggles.  The former option promotes learning while the latter obstructs it.

I have barely cracked the cover of Leaning to Love Math, but I am very confident that it will be excellent.  I promise to update this post when I have more to say!

Book Review: The Fly in the Cathedral by Brian Cathcart

Fly in Cathedral

I thoroughly enjoyed this historical book about Cockcroft and Walton and the first time an atomic nucleus was split in the laboratory.  It brings to light an exciting era in science that most people only know from the lore of newspaper articles from decades ago.  This book has very broad appeal.

Most students of physics or chemistry learn something about Rutherford’s experiments that discovered the structure of the atom as a miniscule but very heavy nucleus surrounded by mostly empty space and some tiny and very lightweight electrons.  Rutherford used a radioactive substance as a natural source for alpha particles which were directed at a thin gold foil.  Most of the alpha particle passed through the foil with minimal deflection, and experimenters counted flashes of light when the particles hit a scintillating screen.

Flash forward to the search for the Higgs boson at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Geneva where custom designed particle beams of astounding TeV energies where protons infinitesimally close to the speed of light  are collided with each other.  In place of  human eyes and a scintillating screen is an amazing high-tech detector larger than a house, and all of the data are collected and analyzed with awesome computing power.

The story of Cockcroft and Walton at the Cavendish in Cambridge is a story of great experimental ingenuity.  Taking advantage of electricity which is newly available they generate the first synthetic particle beams.  There is a lot of work with high voltages and vacuum systems, and progress is difficult and dangerous.  The first experimentation with automated detectors begins.  Suddenly the field of nuclear physics  is alive, and immediately it is astonishing that, despite the challenges, it was at the same time easier than anticipated.

The name of the book?  That tiny nucleus in all of that empty space is like a fly in a cathedral.

Book Review: Descartes’ Secret Notebook by Amir D. Aczel

Descartes Notebook

Descartes’ Secret Notebook by Amir D. Aczel was thoroughly enjoyable.  Even if mathematics is not your primary interest this book is still a fascinating piece of history.  Descartes lived in fear of the Inquisition from the Catholics, but having been born Catholic he lived equally in fear of persecution from the Protestants.  When he was young he also had serious health problems, so there was no shortage of adversity.  Yet an amazing intellect was more powerful.  Through the many journeys and associations of Descartes one may learn much about the Renaissance world.

From the perspective of a scientist and mathematician it is delightful to see the relationships between Descartes and many of his contemporaries including Kepler, Newton, Leibnitz and others.  It appears that Descartes’ may have been on the verge of discovering calculus but feared the heresy of discussing infinity.  Additionally he had insight into the future work of mathematicians such as Euler.

Descartes appears elsewhere on this site, namely on the page for Cartesian Battleship.

Review: Lost in School by Ross W. Greene

lost in schoolI immensely enjoyed the narrative portions of this book.  Ross Greene does an exceptional job showing how deficits in skills oftentimes manifest themselves as behavioural challenges.  The gut response  by adults is too often  that it is an issue for discipline.  Yet, so often,  the disciplinary approach only increases the undesired behaviour.  On the other hand, addressing the underlying skill deficit is both the compassionate approach and the approach that succeeds.

Students who are confused in the classroom tend to become bored and frustrated, and then avoidance tactics are a natural result.  Suppose that a student who has decent math skills is becoming disruptive in math class.  There could be several different reasons, other than math ability, that contribute.  There could be a speech/language issue such that the student has trouble posing a question.   The student may have anxiety issues that need to be addressed when new topics are introduced.  Or, perhaps the student feels socially awkward and does not know how to address the situation without feeling too vulnerable.

Once we understand the cause of the difficulty we may proceed constructively in a manner that allows the student to learn math while addressing the deficit, and the class as a whole may move forward. Successfully addressing such issues is a wonderful growth opportunity for the teacher as well.

If, on the other hand,  a punitive approach is adopted,  the student does not learn, and the student becomes increasingly frustrated.  The problem typically escalates.  We must always be careful that we do not ask students to overreach their current level of ability.

Ross Greene provides some specific tools including a check list that may be very useful.  He also presents case studies in a narrative form to illustrate the ideas.  I personally found these narratives to be the most enjoyable.

While the book is intended for children in school, the mindset is also useful for dealing with difficult adults!  For more information visit http://www.lostatschool.org/.

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