The benefits of math competitions are well known: focusing on goals, dealing with pressure, learning teamwork, and building friendships are among those typically mentioned. Math competitions also allow for the much needed celebration of intellectual achievement the way athletic achievement has always been celebrated. At IMACS, many of our math enrichment students enjoy competing in the American Mathematics Competitions, International Mathematical Olympiad, and MATHCOUNTS among other contests, so we have a very positive view of math competitions, particularly for the kids who thrive in that environment. We’re extremely proud of our numerous students over the years who have performed well in these prestigious contests. We’re equally proud of our numerous students over the years who have thrived in quiet contemplation.
This brings to mind an article published last week by The Wall Street Journal on the challenges encountered by Type A parents raising Type B kids. The article talked about different ways that ambitious, competitive, and hard-driving parents modify their interactions with or expectations of their dreamy, mellow, and seemingly laid-back children to foster healthy parent-child relationships. Whether Type A or not, most parents are cognizant of today’s ultra-competitive global environment, and many feel a sense of urgency to nudge, push, or even pressure their kids to achieve. It’s not a stretch to imagine the parents of a mathematically talented child thinking, “If all the other kids are involved in math and science, then my child should be doing even more.” Here’s the thing: What makes an activity suitable for even more depends on what works for your child and is not necessarily the same activity enjoyed by all the other kids but with more time dedicated to it or with better results.
For parents considering activities for their mathematically talented child, it is important to understand how innate personality factors into the mix that determines whether math contests provide a net positive experience for that child. Just as there are natural-born competitors among mathematically talented students, there are also natural-born dreamers. These kids used to get a bad rap for being unfocused, undisciplined, and even lazy. There was no observable productivity associated with daydreaming so, of course, it had to be a waste of time. Not so fast. In 2009, researchers from the University of British Columbia published a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences detailing that brain activity increases when our minds wander. Reporting on this finding, ScienceDaily.com put it well: “[B]rain areas associated with complex problem-solving – previously thought to go dormant when we daydream – are in fact highly active during these episodes.” And from The Wall Street Journal: “These sudden insights … are the culmination of an intense and complex series of brain states that require more neural resources than methodical reasoning.”
If your child is more of a dreamer (or just not drawn to competition), activities that would cultivate his or her talent in and appreciation for mathematics may differ from what is offered through a typical regional, national, or international math contest. Students of this personality type often find more success and satisfaction with math enrichment programs that focus on deep problem-solving over computational prowess. This is not to say that your child shouldn’t at least try participating in some type of competitive math. The experience just might open up a different side of his or her mathematical personality. In fact, our math enrichment classes use game-playing and mini-competitions as teaching tools, and most of our students really enjoy this aspect of the class the best. But if it’s clear that competition does not bring out the best in your child, we encourage you to explore other options including letting your child have more free and unstructured time to let his or her mind ruminate about the wonders of mathematics.
For parents of talented children, the secrets of mathematical success are really not that different from general advice on positive parenting. They include understanding what kind of child you have, knowing what motivates him or her, and fostering an environment that includes the kind of math activities or, quite possibly, freedom from structured activities that align best with that motivation. And if having a dreamer for a child still makes you worry, just think about the great mathematical and scientific discoveries we owe to dreamers of the past. You never know what grand ideas are simmering behind those eyes staring off into the distance.
Dreamer Matching Puzzle
We made a simple matching game out of the Wall Street Journal article that reported on the aforementioned University of British Columbia study. See if you or your kids can match the great thinker with his profound idea and what he was reportedly doing at the time moment of insight. Answers may be found in the article.
Great Thinker: (A) Archimedes, (B) Newton, (C) Einstein, (D) Descartes, and (E) Tesla.
Profound Idea: (1) special relativity, (2) coordinate geometry, (3) alternating electrical currents, (4) calculating the volume of an irregularly shaped object, and (5) law of universal gravitation.
Dreamy Activity: (i) lying in bed watching flies on the ceiling, (ii) taking a bath, (iii) watching an apple fall from a tree in an orchard, (iv) taking a walk, and (v) imagining trains and lightening.
Editor’s note: Regular readers of this blog will notice a slight change going forward. IMACS will be switching to a bi-weekly publishing schedule with our next post appearing on November 10, 2011.