When I watch videos of Mike Lawler teaching math to his sons it makes me want to be a better teacher. Lawler, a mathematician by training and former academic, started Mikesmathpage to chronicle his lessons in homeschooling his kids, and his lessons are a master class in patient inquiry and the art of the slow reveal.
Lawler’s blog is a collection of videos, teaching ideas, tough math problems, and cool tools for bringing advanced mathematical concepts to beginner audiences. Last week I got Lawler on the phone and had a chance to talk to him about his work. Lawler started his career as a professor and quickly learned that the academic life was not the life for him. But his mathematical self found new life when he started homeschooling his two kids. Lawler says, “I lost interest in math, and the kids brought me back in!” He calls his family math, “the math world I would’ve dreamed about when I was in high school!”
And it’s true. While Lawler hits some of the high points of early math education — some of his most popular videos have been short lessons on dividing fractions and why a negative times a negative equals a positive — he and his kids typically are working well outside the realm of K-12 math standards. They are doing this kind of things that can’t help but spark some curiosity in even the most hardened mathphobe.
He typically finds his inspiration by checking what research mathematicians are up to, and seeing how that might be adapted to his kids. For example, he recently attended a lecture on developable surfaces by Heather Macbeth at MIT, and he adapted some of the ideas to do a lesson with his kids. I love when Lawler asks his younger son, “what are some shapes that you know how to make out of a piece of paper?” And his son bypasses the cylinder and goes straight for the Mobius strip.
Lawler has lots of posts and videos devoted to working through competition math problems. “I grew up in math competitions, I was on the MIT Putnam team, so I really enjoyed it,” says Lawler, “my kids are not big math contest kids. The reason I do a lot is because the problems themselves are really good.” One such problem that generated some great insights from Lawler and his kids was a problem from the European Girl’s Math Olympiad about snails in the plane.
Inspired by attending a talk by Conrad Wolfram at the Computer Based Math Education Summit, Lawler has also started doing some computer math with his kids. In one such post,“Computer Math and the Chaos Game,” he walks his kids through a cool coding exercise using Khan Academy’s coding interface (I didn’t know about this tool before today; it’s totally cool). The video, embedded below, of his kids playing with the chaos game and catching the surprising reveal (I won’t spoil it for you) actually made me laugh out loud with glee.
Visit Mikesmathpage and you will see that there is more of where that came from. If you’re ever having a day when you feel sad about pedagogy — sometimes I have those — a few minutes of family math will definitely get your head back in the game.