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But Barbara Oakley, author of the book A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra), says it was learning Russian that helped her finally grasp math at age 26—and eventually become an electrical engineer and education author."
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Oakley wrote a piece for Nautilus explaining how, after a childhood of flunking through math classes, she was finally able to grasp and retain the skill. With Newton’s second law of f =ma, for example:
I practiced feeling what each of the letters meant—f for force was a push, m for mass was a kind of weighty resistance to my push, and a was the exhilarating feeling of acceleration. (The equivalent in Russian was learning to physically sound out the letters of the Cyrillic alphabet.) I memorized the equation so I could carry it around with me in my head and play with it. If m and a were big numbers, what did that do to f when I pushed it through the equation? If f was big and a was small, what did that do to m? How did the units match on each side? Playing with the equation was like conjugating a verb.
The trick was to approach math the way she had approached Russian: she memorized an equation the way she had memorized Russian verbs, and then tested them in every possible—and impossible—tense and conjugation. With equations, she tested what happens when you change the values in different scenarios.
|Chekov makes you better at calculusAP Photo/LM Otero|
Over time, Oakley—and Army veteran who is now an engineering professor at Oakland University—trained her brain to learn the different scenarios, which increased an understanding of the concept itself.
How We Should Be Teaching Math
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