So this week I found myself reading actress and mathematician Danica McKellar's new book, Math Doesn't Suck: How to Survive Middle School Math without Losing Your Mind or Breaking a Nail. I am not entirely sure what to think of it.
The cheery blue cover (and cute photo of the lovely Ms. McKellar, of Wonder Years and West Wing fame) bears a striking resemblance to Teen magazine. Cover lines scream "Are you a math-o-phobe? Take this quiz!" "Horoscope inside!" and "Do you still have a crush on him?" This last line is somewhat misleading; there is very little about crushes covered in this book. The crush reference comes from an intro to the Greatest Common Factor section, in which McKellar notes that often times, it seems like you have a crush on one guy and then...a few months later you have a crush on another guy who actually has a lot in common with the first guy. OHMIGOD!! This is kind of like math, because numbers have a lot of factors in common too and...
Math Doesn't Suck continues on in this fashion as it covers decimals and percents, fractions, basic algebra, etc. There are various drawings and notes interspersed throughout; repeated "What Do You Have to Say?" text boxes contain such assurances as "Smart girls are cool. They are generally fun to be around and good to have conversations with," -- Mackenzie, 19.
Overall, the book is fun and, as UCLA math prof Veeravalli Varadarajan notes on the back cover, "A brilliant and successful effort to bring a little glamour to the teaching of mathematics." There's nothing wrong with trying to make math accessible and interesting to girls. Math Doesn't Suck explains the reasoning behind problems and why these concepts make sense in the real world.
But there are also a few problems with this book. The biggie for me is... this is middle school math? One of the reasons we're so far behind other nations mathematically is that 7th and 8th graders are still learning fractions and percents. I maintain that reasonably bright kids should be able to learn pretty much all pre-algebra math by 6th grade. And yet, as this book shows, much of the middle school math curriculum around this country remains more about marking time than anything else. This is not McKellar's fault, but she could have thrown some more geometry, statistics, slightly higher level algebra, etc., into the mix.
The constant references to being "smart" or "dumb" are also annoying. As we've talked about on this blog before, there's a danger to talking much about kids' abilities as if they were fixed, unchanging labels. Kids who think of themselves as "smart" -- as a state of being -- become afraid of being "dumb." And so they don't like to try hard things. There's no reason to think that assurances to girls that it's OK to be smart should be exempted from this rule.
And finally...as a girl who never needed her math wrapped up in pink paper, I worry that this book will feed into the stereotype that girls are only interested in math insofar as it relates to horoscopes, crushes, babysitting, clothes, cell phones, etc. Someone who thought girls were not naturally good at math would not be dissuaded from that thought by a book offering constant reassurances that you can do this! Really! You're a smart girl! Math is OK!
That said, if Danica McKellar gets a few more girls interested in math, or helps kids understand concepts despite boring or incompetent teachers, then she will have done a real service. So I hope there's a lot of that going on. Heaven knows we need it.