On Monday mornings, I teach a class called Affinities Math, with help from our new Assistant Teacher, Jordan Spurlin. This is a class for a group of young adults who are focused on transitioning into the larger world. They don’t need to master calculus, and they don’t have to prepare for the SAT. All of them, however, aspire to be independent—living outside of their parents’ homes, working in a productive, satisfying job, and navigating the world safely and successfully.
I want everything we do to make a positive contribution to the quality of life for the people we serve. In this class, participants will explore the world of practical, applied math. Just as importantly, they will strengthen their abilities to work together, to communicate with each other, and to solve problems creatively.
In these first weeks, I have put the participants in pairs to solve some basic problems. One challenge is to measure a long length of rope (about 40 feet). A second challenge is to count the value of a cup full of coins. Neither of these challenges is particularly useful “out in the world;” the grocery store now has a machine that will count my change, and most ropes at the hardware store are already sorted by length. These two challenges, though, are perfect introductions to the important work of this class.
First, these challenges give everyone an opportunity for some early teamwork, and this allows Jordan and me the chance to assess their ability to get help from each other, to check each other’s work, and to coordinate their efforts for a successful result.
In a recent class, one set of partners had successfully sorted a handful of coins, counted the number of each kind of coin, and calculated the value of each group (i.e., 32 cents in pennies, 75 cents in nickels, $2.30 in dimes, and so on). All that was left was to sum up the individual totals to get the final answer. One partner came up with an answer and spoke it out. The other partner replied, “Yes! That’s it!” When we asked them if they were sure, both partners said yes. When we asked them how confident they were, both partners said 100%! They wrote down their final answer and sat back, happy with a job well done.
Their final answer was significantly less than the previously calculated value of the quarters alone. A quick glance at the charts they themselves had made showed that something was wrong, but neither partner had noticed! Not only had they not checked their work against each other, they had missed a glaring logical error. This was not an errant summation; this was something bigger, a significant moment of inattention combined with an inconsistent sense of agency.
I already know that these two partners understand relative quantity. I’m pretty sure that if asked which was bigger, $8 or $1, they could answer correctly. In this exercise, then, the main goal is to help the participants stay present in what they are doing, to always be thinking, and to take ownership for the answer in a way that leads to success.
In our daily lives, we often ask other people for help, and check each other’s work, and make sure that what we’re doing makes logical sense. These capacities help us to stay safe, to not get ripped off, and to be independent advocates for our needs. With these skills working well, we don’t have to blindly rely on others to get our needs met.
As the term progresses, we will introduce more of the “affinities;” that is, activities that build off of the participants’ interests. For now, our focus is almost purely on process. We are off to a good start, and Jordan and I are excited about leading this class!