Why Do Kids Need Strategy More Than Math Facts?

26 01 2013

By On September 18, 2012

In historical China, children played a game that involved a rooster, a man, and a worm.
  • Man eats rooster
  • Rooster eats worm
  • Worm eats man

You may recognize this game as rock-paper-scissors, also known as Roshambo.  The origins of this game are hard to track as almost every culture has had a version of it.

It has been used to settle differences of every sort from chore duty to who gets the last piece of pizza.

But why is this game so effective?  Why is it used so widely, and with such seemingly random results?

When you play a game of Yahtzee, what slots should you be looking to fill first?  If you roll a 3,4,5 vs a 1,2,3 – which roll gives you better chances of rolling a large straight with your other 2 die?

What do these problems have to do with becoming adept in math?

Math Education Misses The Mark

Our education system has taught and thought about mathematics the wrong way for far too long. Even as homeschoolers, most of the math curriculum that is available to us barely touches the surface of the true purpose of math.

What is math really for?  Is it to memorize and cram as much into our brain so that we can pass a test that says we can “do” math?

Most people will answer that we need math to get along in our everyday lives.  But how and why do we need math in our everyday lives?


  • is ”the science of numbers and their operations, interrelations, combinations, generalizations, and abstractions and of space configurations and their structure, measurement, transformations, and generalizations.” (from Webster’s dictionary)
  • finds patterns and tries to understand them
  • is a tool
  • describes processes, not answers
  • solves problems

I think the last few bullet points are a great working definition of how we would see math in our lives outside of education.  Math is a tool we use to solve problems, find patterns, and describe processes.

Math is a lot more than just abstract equations in a workbook.

And instead of focusing on teaching children how to figure out how to solve complex life problems, find new patterns, and describe processes that they come across, we spend most of their formal years on “math grammar – a term my sister coined for the rote education of formulas and factors that is spoon-fed from Kindergarten up.

Mathematical Reasoning

The real important thing that is missing from most algebra textbooks is strategy – otherwise known as logical reasoning or problem solving.

And all logical reasoning is really mathematical reasoning.  Because the solutions to problems involve patterns and processes, and all patterns and processes involve numbers whether it is apparent or not.

Did I just blow your mind?

Math is foundational to the universe, to life, to walking down the street.

So why are we not teaching kids to reason mathematically?

Word problems don’t count.  They are simple puzzles that give you all the convenient information you need and they never exist in the real world.

In real life, that train going x miles per hour would never keep an exact steady rate of speed.  And neither would the car.  No textbook wants to explain human error, or the effects of friction, or wind speed in relation to velocity.

Strategy Is A First Step

So if math textbooks are way off course in getting kids to actually think mathematically (and they are), where should you start?

You could start noticing patterns and processes in your everyday lives.  When you see patterns in shape and form, that is geometry.  When you begin to try to construct a birdhouse together and need to figure out how to make everything fit, you are doing algebra and a host of other processes.

Start with the problems and patterns first.  Get your kids curious about figuring out how to solve a problem in real life.  Then you can show them the resources and tools they will need – like the formula for finding a circumference of a quadrilateral.

But I think the easiest and fastest way to teach your kids the beauty of mathematical reasoning is by introducing strategy to them through games.

After playing Yahtzee online and in our home for weeks on end, I finally started figuring out that I should try to fill the hardest and most point-awarding slots first instead of worrying about the 1′s slot- which could only give me a total of 5 points.

And while taking a course on Game Theory, I learned that rock-paper-scissors works because there is no dominant strategy.  Each choice has about the same chance as the others to win – 1:1:1.

That class may seem like some sort of hobby class you can take at a community center, but this was a class taught at Yale with master-level business and economics majors filling the room.

The information that was being taught was mind-boggling because it completely destroyed my views on math and on marketing and human choice.

It led me to believe that  we should be encouraging children to explore mathematical reasoning and strategy – and leave the rote facts for later when they want to get deeper into a field of research or work.




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