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Talking to my three-year-old about my undergraduate mathematics teaching

One day, a couple of months ago, I was walking my son to nursery and he asked what I was doing that day. I said I was going to do some teaching. What about? he asked. Well.

I’m a university mathematics lecturer. He’s a three-year-old. He knows about counting, but not what maths is. This could be a problem. But I was in luck – that day I was teaching on our new module Game Theory and Recreational Mathematics. Specifically, I was introducing combinatorial game theory. I told him my teaching that day was about playing games. He was very excited, and figured he might do a bit of that at nursery as well. (There’s something here about the role of play in education, and how we lose this as we go along, but that’s another story.)

Since then, he’s asked now and then. But this week, he has taken a particular interest in what I’m teaching. Could I explain all this week’s teaching in a way he will understand? As an intellectual game, this is a bit of fun, and it interests me as an exercise in communication – can I explain what I do to a three-year-old, even if only in a superficial way? 

  • Monday: “I helped my friend Hannah teach about the weather. Have you noticed that it’s getting dark later in the evening? A few weeks ago, it was dark and we could see stars on the way home from nursery. Now, it’s starting to get dark but the sky is still blue” [first year mathematical modelling, fitting trig models to various weather data from the Met Office, leading with a worked example on hours of daylight.]
  • Tuesday: “about aeroplanes. It’s about people getting off aeroplanes as quickly as they can” [second year mathematical modelling. A cellular automata-type model for aircraft evacuation].
  • Wednesday: no teaching. 
  • Thursday: “about computers” [second year mathematics students programming module]. He was a bit disappointed with this, and complained “that’s what you told me the other week”, but it was a review of the module ahead of students starting individual programming projects next week, so hard to be specific!
  • Friday: “I helped my friend Alex teach about a game and juggling” [Tantrix tiles lead to necklace numbers lead to siteswap juggling moves, via graph colouring and various counting techniques.] He’s fascinated by juggling and asked me various questions about this. He wants me to teach him how to juggle so we can be “like clowns”. 

How much does he really understand about what I do? Not much, I guess. But he seems excited to hear about it and I hope he has a positive association with what daddy does as a result. 

One Response to “Talking to my three-year-old about my undergraduate mathematics teaching”

  1. Avatar Nikki

    Interesting read given I also have a 3 year old (although I’m only a secondary maths teacher). Had an interesting event the other day when my wife found a matching activity between numerous objects (from 1 to 10) and the numerical symbol. I can’t remember if he got help for “1”, but when asked for two, pointed to “10”; so either he knows binary, or at the very least can map two objects onto the number with two symbols!

    I/we take so much for granted with ingrained maths, fascinating to see someone starting out on the journey. Even basic counting a year or so ago was “one”, “one”, “one” which makes sense as each time you point to only ‘one’ object when ‘counting’.


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