Book Review: How to Bake Pi: Inspiration for Teachers/Parents

In Waldorf education math for a first and second grader is a joyous experience. This continues through the lower grades with math being integrated into drawing, form drawing, art, hands-on activities, and handwork. However, as the children get older and the math becomes more challenging it becomes increasingly difficult to present continually exciting math experiences – even when presented with creative lessons like we provide in the Earthschooling curriculum.

In addition, even with some of the creative resources provided for the early grades some teachers or parents have a hard time engaging the child or they miss out on math opportunities because they don’t understand the process behind teaching living and creative math. Or perhaps they just need some newfound inspiration covering concepts they already use for an especially resistant student (like my third child).

Or perhaps they need an “attitude adjustment” because, like me, they grew up in a household led by a strict math teacher.

The understanding, comfort level of the teacher with math and relationship the teacher has with math really make a difference in how the lessons come across to the students – even if they are the best lessons in the world. As with all things in Waldorf education it is not always the lesson itself but how you present as a teacher and your own relationship with that lesson that the students will experience. So if you feel like you need some “attitude adjustment” in math or simply some joyous inspiration as a teacher…

You will also be excited about a show I heard a few weeks ago…

I recently heard a great show on NPR where they interviewed Eugenia Cheng on her book “How to Bake Pi” . Her talk was so motivational and inspiring. I was especially enchanted with her description of a math class she teaches to art students at the Art Institute in Chicago. She talks about bringing complex concepts to her students in a simple and enjoyable manner.

Challenge Accepted!

I know the book was intended to be read by adults and teachers of the class – people who already know about math and are perhaps able to teach it on some level. However, I decided to give the book the ultimate challenge.

Many parents and teachers have confided in me that even when presented with lessons they love that it is ultimately their own relationship with math that presents a problem. But I didn’t give the book to one of them…

I have three children. One speaks, lives, dreams and eats math. One is very skilled at math and has tutored up to Calculus level. So I gave the book to my third child who ‘hates’ math

This is what she had to say…

How to Bake Pi

Book Review by Sofi, Age 16

I just recently finished reading “How to Bake Pi” by Eugenia Cheng. I have to say I am impressed. Before starting the book I was skeptical. How could I book about math be fun to read for someone like me who despises the subject? But I love to read, and I took interest in the idea, so I decided to read it.

If there is one thing that I found in this book that I agreed with from the start it’s that: “Trigonometry makes triangles really easy. But if you don’t care about triangles you’re unlikely to feel that your life has been made easier by Trigonometry.” This is now one of my favorite quotes.

Like I said before, I really don’t like math. Not that I dislike math in general, but doing math and trying to figure it out myself has always been hard for me no matter how hard I try. As math became harder, especially in high school, I just made the decision that math is not my “thing”. Not only did How to Bake Pi make the whole concept of math easier for me to understand, it did it in a way that didn’t make me hate math even more!

The first thing this book brought to my attention (as obvious as it may be to many of you reading this), is that the whole point of math is to make stuff less difficult. In the book Cheng says “The aim of math is to make things easier.” That is what I always found so confusing, but she explains it right there!

As math has become more and more complex in high school I’ve wondered: “Is math easy or hard? Isn’t math the thing that simplifies difficult situations? So why is math itself so difficult?” It’s actually math that makes things less difficult! But unfortunately the thing that is difficult in the first place can also be math… But that’s why we use math to simplify other math! Anyway, it just comes back full circle, but the whole point is that math is not used to make everyone’s lives more annoying and hard, its purpose is to make our lives easier.

Another thing I was made aware of after reading this book is that “Math is more about the method, than the ingredients.” What Cheng means by this, is that the way you got to the answer is more important than the answer itself. In the sense that, if you have a problem that says “One money + Three monkeys = Four monkeys”, the important thing isn’t the monkeys, but the formula you used to get the quantity.

She says that in most math classes when a teacher gives young students a word problem like that, the student will question it. Like “why do I have monkeys?” and “the answer is zero, because I gave them all to the zoo”, but what they usually fail to realize is that, it doesn’t matter if they have monkeys or cookies, because it’s the method, not the ingredients. Although my math experiences are more real-life and hands-on I can relate to that feeling. Sometimes I am still distracted by the objects in the math problem and I forget the experience of doing the problem itself.

This problem can also happen with those ridiculous word problems where people like to buy hundreds of watermelons. I remember having a lot of those when I took an enrichment math class at a local public school. However, even when I am presented with a problem taken from “real life” I find myself confused. The trick, according to Cheng, is to simply ignore all the unnecessary information. It keeps your brain from focusing on the distractions of the problem at hand!

Another idea that I really like from this book is that “math is the study of anything”, this didn’t really help me in the understanding of geometry or algebra, but it made me realize that math relates to things that I love, like singing, and acting. There is a mathematical method in everything we do. In singing, there’s math in sight-reading and in acting it can be up in the light booth or down on the stage set. Math is everywhere and we are in control of it, with how we can use it well to our advantage.

Now I have a very basic understanding of baking, because we do a lot of it at home. I know what the purpose of flour and eggs are in a recipe, (structure and emulsifier), and after reading Pi I can now relate that to math! By knowing the purpose of your ingredients, you can replace them with other ingredients that do the same thing, so you can get the same outcome! I thought that Cheng had a very neat way of explaining that.

One of my favorite things Cheng points out, is the problem in many public teaching systems. She says “One of the problems with learning math at school is that almost everything is externally motivated. You’re always just trying to solve a problem and worse, it’s a problem that somebody else set for you that you probably have no need to solve apart from for your math homework or math exam.”

Cheng is completely right!

During my worst math experiences I have found that the reason I am so unmotivated to do math assignments is because I don’t feel like I have any reason to! When I am doing math at home during homeschooling assignments my mom works hard to make sure all my math work has practical applications or is fun in some way. We work together with it. However, when I’ve worked with a tutor (including my brother) or taken local classes or my mom and I can’t find something that “clicks” with me that day, I find I am completely unmotivated. It just doesn’t work for me. I, personally, really need every math problem to have an internal motivation. This book helped me communicate that need so we can have more success with some of my more difficult math lessons.

Imagine if math at schools was taught with both external and internal motivation! With internal motivation you start with an idea and see where it takes you! I think that’s a much more interesting and creative way to understand math, and I feel like it would be a lot more effective to understand something by your own work, than to only listen to other people’s work (of course both are effective, but it would nice for them to get equal time).

One of the things that sort of threw me off was all of the allusions and metaphors with cooking. Now if you are someone who has a lot of experience in the kitchen, then by all means, this book will probably help you out a lot with math, but for me I found the cooking versus math talk very hard to process most of the time.

But for a book that took two things I don’t comprehend very well and put them together, it still did a great job, which is saying something. All in all this book did help me understand why math is, but it did not help me enjoy math. According to the book, however, that job can be made easier for the teacher by following the methods she outlines in the book. The point of the book was not to make the reader enjoy math more but to help them bring that enjoyment to their students. I agree with this because when these methods are used with me I am much more willing to take an interest in my math lessons.

If you want to learn more about this inspiring author and teacher you can read about her on her website HERE. Adding her biography to your 7th, 8th or 9th grade lessons on mathematicians would add an exciting modern connection to your student’s work. You can purchase her book HERE. This review was not requested by the author, nor is it sponsored. We just thought the book would be interesting to read and we loved it.

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