An interview with mathematician and New York Times best selling maths book author Danica McKellar.
When did you first get interested in wanting to teach children maths ultimately going on to author three best selling books on the topic so far?
Math (or “maths” as you like to say in Australia) has made a huge difference in my life – getting good at a challenging subject like math gave me a new self confidence I could never get from Hollywood. I have a degree in math from UCLA and I also coauthored a theorem. Not for the faint of heart! When you tackle something scary and succeed, you teach yourself that you are stronger and smarter than you thought. I knew I could help other kids find that same confidence, and at the same time help to prepare them for better paying jobs, because that’s what math does! With my love of entertainment, writing entertaining math books was natural for me.
Do you find that boys and girls have different problems approaching learning maths?
Math can be challenging for everyone. Girls have the extra issue that they are inundated from ubiquitous media that reinforces negative stereotypes about girls not being good at math. It makes it that much harder.
What are your thoughts on teaching boys separately from girls? What are the most common problems kids in general seem to have with maths at any given age?
I have heard that single-sex schools are beneficial, but segregated math classrooms in coed schools…that’s a slippery slope in a society that believes boys are better at math than girls.
Math is a challenging subject, and human beings tend to take the path of least resistance, unless they truly believe in the benefit of the hard work in front of them, like lifting weights to get stronger. Well, the brain is like a muscle that gets stronger the more it’s worked out, and doing math is like going to the gym for your brain. It actually sharpens your brain and makes you smarter.
Is there any aspect to maths (vs. teaching another subject) that teachers in general need to be mindful of as they teach?
See above for the gym analogy–no other subject is so effective in exercising that problem-solving center of the brain. Math is a language, a foreign language, and the language we use in all the sciences to describe and understand the world around us.
What do you think of teaching maths with technology like KhanAcademy.org, tablets,and other digital devices vs. the way we learned growing up which was usually textbooks, blackboard, and a teacher?
How do you address a child who gives you a definitive claim they won’t need maths as an adult, say, that they tell you “I already have decided I will be an (artist, musician, athlete etc.) when I grow up.”?
Math makes your brain stronger and will help you in ways you never could have anticipated. Plus, many jobs you might not have imagined actually do use quite a bit of math – chefs constantly do conversions in recipes (see Kiss My Math for a whole section on these jobs!) And of course anyone wanting to own their own business needs to be comfortable with all sorts of math. Oh, and math is the language of money – credit card statements, mortgages, etc. Those companies are experts at percents… You don’t want to be unwittingly ripped off!
Tell us about the book Girls Get Curves.
Girls Get Curves: Geometry Takes Shape. It covers high school geometry–including proofs! Like all of my books, it teaches solid math concepts in a very conversational way, and in the context of silly analogies and stories. They also include advice on how to be a teenager in addition to the math lessons.
Great stuff! How can people follow you on social media?
I am on Twitter all the time at @danicamckellar and love to hear from my followers!
Danica McKellar is a three-time New York Times bestselling author with her groundbreaking books, Math Doesn’t Suck, Kiss My Math and Hot X: Algebra Exposed.