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109 Ways to Celebrate Math Lessons From Dr. Seuss

The late, beloved author's books convey important messages about mathematics

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March 15, 2013

This article originally appeared in The Huffington Post on March 2, 2013.

By Miriam Sherin

Many fans of multiple generations will honor Theodor Seuss Geisel's (Dr. Seuss) birthday this weekend with celebrations of his monumental contributions to reading. Scholastic magazine offers lesson plans to teachers on how to toast the author with classroom reading and art projects.

But Dr. Seuss books also convey important messages about mathematics. The late, beloved author, who would have turned 109 today, reminds us of the importance of exploring patterns, thinking creatively, and developing our ability with language as we learn mathematics.

"One, fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish."

Relationships between objects is a theme in many of Dr. Seuss' books. You can sort fish by whether they are red or blue, or sad or glad. You can compare "his and her feet" with "fuzzy fur feet." This goal of identifying patterns is central to mathematical learning. From sorting blocks to working with functions, patterns are pervasive in the work of mathematics. In fact, for over two decades mathematics has been referred to as the science of patterns. The central idea is that doing mathematics involves exploring the arrangements of structures, and across grade levels students should be engaged in identifying, representing and describing patterns.

"I do not like green eggs and ham."

In his iconic story of Sam I Am, no amount of pestering will initially convince the main character to taste the atypical green eggs and ham. Unfortunately, many students treat mathematics learning in a similar way, viewing math as progression of algorithms to be memorized, with no detours allowed. They do not want to try a different approach (even in a box or with a fox!).

Yet being open to trying alternative methods in mathematics, and to finding multiple and creative solutions to tasks is a valuable mathematical skill. A 2013 study conducted in Cyprus documented the positive correlation between student creativity in mathematics and student mathematical achievement. Promoting our students' mathematical creativity is an important avenue for advancing their understanding of mathematics.

"There's a wocket in my pocket."

A bofa on the sofa? A zeller in the cellar? Dr. Seuss plays with words -- giving them new meaning and inventing new words. Similar issues with language are key in learning mathematics. Many words have different meanings in everyday language than in a mathematical context -- take "straight," "even," or "factor," for example. And this is not just an issue in K-12 mathematics.

A 2013 study at the University of Texas Arlington reports on challenges college students face understanding "if" and "or" from a mathematical perspective, rather than a colloquial sense. Learning mathematics involves teasing apart these differences as well as learning new words and terminology.

Dr. Seuss is credited with saying, "It is better to know how to learn than to know." This is to me, the essential goal of mathematics learning -- to understand mathematics to such a degree that you have the disposition and the tools to figure out the task at hand, or at least to make some progress. Fluency with procedures is certainly important, but without the drive to seek out answers to questions we don't know, little progress can be made in mathematics.

An innovator in many ways -- from his use of text to the illustrations he created -- Dr. Seuss opened up new worlds for children and adults. While his primary contributions may very well be in the world of reading, his books offer important lessons for mathematics learning as well.

Last week the results of the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress were reported with good news for mathematics -- students in grades 4 and 8 scored higher in mathematics than previously, with substantial increases over the past 10 years. We're moving in the right direction. Let's keep going as educators, parents and lifelong learners, and remember the lessons from Dr. Seuss: "Oh the thinks you can think up if only you try."

- Miriam Sherin is a professor in the School of Education and Social Policy.