I struggled with algebra in middle school. I still don’t like algebra. When I was studying for math tests as a kid I kept asking myself why does this matter? and what does this mean? After all, mathematics is emphatically not reality: it’s only connected to the world and our experiences through clever metaphors (or isomorphisms if you want to use math jargon). Yes, a perfect sphere has never existed, but the shape of the Earth is spherical enough that we can pretend it’s one.
The biggest reason that people struggle with understanding academic topics is that those topics aren’t given a sense of meaningfulness. This isn’t the fault of learners, it’s the fault of educators. When we navigate the world we can’t help but try to discover the meaning of the things we hear, think, and see. Humans are great at extracting meaningfulness: we understand the gist of articles, the plot of a story, or the intentions of someone talking to us. So it’s only natural that when we don’t find algebra meaningful we lose interest.
You’ll never understand or appreciate mathematics, poetry, or chemistry if you view them as the meaningless manipulation of numbers, words, or chemicals. Unfortunately, this is exactly how all of these fields are taught in school. In this blog post I want to show how to make things more meaningul. Along the way, we’ll develop some techniques to help us extract meaning from the world around us.