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Absolute Value

Math for Love founder Dan Finkel ’02 helps kids find joy in his favorite subject

It is a truth universally acknowledged that math class can be boring. 

But it doesn’t have to be, according to Dan Finkel ’02. An elementary-school math whiz who went on to exhaust his district’s math resources halfway through high school, Finkel eventually majored in mathematics
at Swarthmore before earning a Ph.D. in the subject at the University of Washington. Now, he’s working with teachers and school curricula to shape citywide math education in Seattle through his mission-driven company, Math for Love. 

Even so, Finkel is the first to admit that, for many, math ≠ love.

“Math class can seem like a place where there’s this set of rules you’re supposed to follow to solve a problem you don’t care about,” Finkel says. “For most people, if that’s all they’re getting, they understand really quickly that there’s no way to bring their personality to bear in solving that problem, so they leave.”

Reaching kids before they give up on math has become Finkel’s mission. His hope is to communicate a broader sense of what math can be: a pleasurable mix of creativity and logic, not so different from the sorts of games that enthrall children of all ages. 

 

The Arithmetic of Origins

Finkel is the product of a family of educators and game-players. His father was a humanities professor at Evergreen State College, an experimental school with no departments and no grades. Finkel’s mother earned a Ph.D. in leadership and policy studies from the University of Washington and researched the effect of childrearing on women’s careers. So it’s no surprise that, even as a kid, Finkel took a critical perspective on his school’s pedagogy.

“I was good at math from a very young age, but it wasn’t really clear what that meant,” he says. “Math teachers told you what to do and then you’d do it. It never really felt like anything that special. Being good at math just felt like a result of playing endless hours of cribbage with my brothers.”

Finkel’s epiphany came in the summer after ninth grade, when he attended a math camp at Hampshire College in Massachusetts. 

“It was the first time I was really challenged in math, the first time I really saw how beautiful math was,” Finkel says. 

To demonstrate the beauty and originality of math to skeptics, Finkel offers an example: What if we agreed that 2 + 2 = 12? 

“It sounds obviously false,” Finkel says. “But in math you can figure out what would happen if it were true. Sometimes you just get nonsense. But in this case, you say 2 + 1 = 11, and 2 + 0 = 10. So maybe it’s not a number line, maybe it’s a number circle. Suddenly you have a whole different model for how numbers might work.

“The fundamental questions for me in math are the ‘what if’ or ‘I wonder’ questions,” Finkel adds. “You start to think about new rules or how things could be different. Then you have the tools to actually pursue it. Pedagogically, that’s the moment when people realize that they have more control than they thought.” 

 

The Calculus of Creation

At first, Finkel resisted majoring in math at Swarthmore. Instead, he opted to take classes in subjects like philosophy, English, and physics, most of them circling around the question of how the mind works. Still, he always had at least one math class on his schedule. When it came time to declare a major, though his interests remained eclectic, math was the only subject where Finkel had enough credits to qualify. Professor Don Shimamoto was a favorite teacher, someone who could effectively communicate difficult mathematical concepts in his lectures but also knew how to sit back and let students explore their abilities in seminar. 

After Swarthmore, Finkel returned to his native Washington state to pursue a Ph.D. in math. There he met his wife, Katherine Cook, a fellow student in his department. She is now creative director of Math for Love; Finkel is founder and director of operations. The Math for Love concept grew slowly during Finkel’s graduate career, during which he taught math for future high-school teachers and got a grant to work with Seattle second- and fourth-grade teachers. 

“I was expecting it’d be slower to get started,” he admits. “We were embraced very quickly by this community. It became full-time work almost right away.” 

Finkel estimates that Math for Love now works with 50 to 100 teachers across Seattle. He and Cook organize teacher circles, classroom demonstrations, workshops, and grade-level support for teachers. They also design curriculum for a summer-school program and offer free lesson plans on mathforlove.com.

Though he has his complaints about the failings of math education in schools, Finkel prefers to work within the system rather than outside of it. 

“You have to change what’s happening during school hours,” he says. “That’s when the time is being put in. We don’t want Math for Love to only be available to kids whose parents can sign them up for something extra after school. We want it to be available to everyone.”

At the same time, he’s wary of the system he’s up against. 

“There’s a sense of a graveyard of good ideas,” he admits. “You see math reformers in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s who wrote great, popular textbooks, but faded away. You need humility in the face of the system that is so big and has so much inertia. It’s hard to really get it to change direction.”

 

The Geometry of Going Forward

Finkel takes courage from what he sees as an ongoing cultural change, where math-and-science fans can finally be cool, or even, in the case of Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting and The Martian, big-screen heroes. If students, teachers, and parents all start to believe that math class isn’t boring, then maybe they’ll come to it with an open mind, ready to have fun. Then, they might realize that many of their favorite games are already based on math.

“Math for Love is really about having a chance to play while doing math,” he says. “We’re always finding good games, or sometimes even making our own.”

One such game of Finkel and Cook’s own creation is called Prime Climb, which has won several awards and was named among the Dr. Toy Best 10 Educational Toys of 2015. Available on Amazon and in select retail stores, it began with the concept of movement based on arithmetic operations. 

To move their pieces along the board from the number one to the number 101, players roll a pair of dice and, based on the results, choose to perform addition, subtraction, multiplication, or division. The mathematical result tells them which square they’ll land on that turn. 

Prime Climb’s rules may seem complex, but an innovative board design makes the game child’s play. 

“We were thinking the game would work for ages 10 and up,” Finkel says. “But parents would play it with 5-year-olds, and the kids would understand how the colors worked.”

These 5-year-olds aren’t necessarily mathematical supergeniuses—they’re ordinary kids excited by a colorful pattern that, to them, has nothing in common with rote math education. That color pattern elegantly demonstrates how each large number (primes excluded) is made up of smaller factors multiplied together. 

“They’re looking for clues, figuring out a mystery instead of memorization,” he says. 

For Finkel, that’s the key—the
success of Prime Climb is just one small step toward a world where math is embraced, not reviled, by the next generation of schoolchildren. Speaking like a true Swarthmore alum, he sees a solid grounding in math—real math: creative, beautiful, thought-provoking—as an education in thinking.
The value of mathematic training,
for him, is absolute, no matter what a child ends up doing with his or her life. 

“The word ‘mathematics’ originally means learning,” he says. “What’s so powerful about the critical thinking skills you learn in math is that you really can apply them anywhere.” 

Dan 411

What’s your favorite number?

I like to notice nice things about the numbers I’m around. I’m 36 years old, for example, which is the first nontrivial example of a “squangular” number, a number that’s both square and triangular. It’s square since 6 x 6 = 36, and triangular since 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 5 + 6 + 7 + 8 = 36. Every number has so many amazing properties, I can’t commit to just one.

 

Who’s your hero?

Alexander Grothendieck: one of the top mathematicians of the 20th century, a beautiful writer, and a person who acted from conviction. 

 

What’s your favorite Math for Love-inspired epiphany?

Last year, I led a workshop of math-hesitant K-12 teachers. Working with pattern blocks, we explored the question of how many blocks you could use to make a hexagon. Over an hour, different people made different observations about what was possible, and when we put them all together, we realized that we had proved that you could make a hexagon from any number of blocks you liked. To have that kind of power over the infinite is pretty exciting—it was a thrill for everyone involved, myself included.

 

How did math help you and your wife woo?

Katherine wrote me a love letter when we were dating that started “Dear Dan” and ended “Love, Katherine.” The body of the letter was a math proof. I loved it. 

 

 

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