Nathan Olson – From Complexity to Simplicity: Seeing Math Through Colors and Blocks

The quote by Benjamin Franklin (posted on the scholarship page), “No employment can be managed without arithmetic, no mechanical invention without geometry” absolutely fascinated me when I read it. It fascinated me instantly because of true it was, and remains in today’s workforce. It is interesting to ponder the idea of where we as a society would be if there were no methodology of mathematical equations to solve pressing questions in personal finance, business, government, nonprofit, education, and the workforce. It is intriguing to think of how if math equations and geometry had not been invented to extent they are today, how would we be left to solve those pressing challenges in numerical form. I honestly have never thought of the principle embedded in Benjamin Franklin’s quote until which is I believe is the notion that “math is unavoidable”. It is at every twist and turn in our society, but can also be a real depressing trap if your like me who due to having learning disabilities which leave you with an inability to comprehend and solve mathematical equations in “traditional” form.

I am one of those students who can say that math has been the greatest barrier in my now decade plus pursuit of higher education, and even led to feeling like a failure because of my inability to succeed in it. I was diagnosed at age 22 years old with Asperger’s Syndrome in 2011, and that was the moment where I realized it was never “me”, but instead the way I learn and process information. In 2015, I was diagnosed with ADHD/ and a nonverbal learning disorder related to mathematics, and at long last I finally understood why this inability in math always seem to haunt me and prevent me from graduating in a timely fashion. What I realized in that it was not ever “me”, but the real issue rests within the ability of teachers and professors to approach math in a way that breaks the “complexity to simplicity” as defined in the essay title. That should be the goal: reducing math to simplicity. The inability in math can be a powerful stereotypical misconception about students with varying degrees of learning and social disabilities like me, and led to self destructive thoughts like asking whether I was “capable” of college life simply because I failed math, yet excelled in others like history, geography, sociology, and politics.

I had the unique opportunity to attend the 2017 Learning Disabilities Association of America 54th Annual International Conference in Baltimore, and learned a lesson which transformed the complexity of math into colors and blocks. It was a fascinating workshop because it led me to reflect on how it was the “methodology” of teaching math, and not “me” which was the real issue. The workshop is entitled, “Multi-sensory Math Methodologies for Students with Learning Disabilities”, taught by Dan Sinclair, founder of Teach 4 Mastery, Inc. His lesson centered on the idea of how educators and families can use color-coded blocks to teach math, and engage manipulatives in every step so to create a visual image, not just an equation. One notable example I’ve remembered from his workshop was “railroad cars joined together by a coupler”, which was used to teach the meaning of “difference between the two” (subtraction). He demonstrated how color-coded blocks can be an a more effective tool to teach things like place value, and decimals which was always an area that I personally struggled with in math classes taken whether in high school and in college attempted. He talked about how color-coded blocks for each place value helped with subitizing and processing issues. He talked about how specific values can help teach addition strategies versus counting strategies. He would associate individual blocks (or pieces) by color, and therefore shifted the mathematical concepts to the simplicity of color-coded blocks, and centers this on the idea that having a “visual representation” of the math representative is vital to increasing the understanding students have of math.

It was revolutionary concept, but one seemingly so simple to implement. In my long and exhaustive pursuit to try and understand math in the “traditional” way, I thought to myself: “would if I had known about this concept using color coded blocks and visual representations to teach math earlier?” And would I have succeeded in math in ways never done? The one thing I do know is that I am very good at citing facts, and political statistics (which I get from watching the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate proceedings. I get all those numbers and concepts, just not algebraic ones! But the type of math needed in today’s society is great, and that is why I was so moved after this workshop.

I appreciated how Mr. Sinclair’s lesson brought my difficulty in math down to simplicity through colors, blocks, and visual representations like his analogy of a train I described above. This lesson changed me because it made me reflect on my long and tireless decade long pursuit in higher education, and how my inability in one area heavily contributed to why it has taken me so long. The detrimental effect of not being good at math, encouraged self destructive mentality of not being capable or perceived as such in higher education, or let alone be admitted to a great college since math (algebra) proficiency is required for admission to many undergraduate and graduate programs.

The question is shall never be whether one is capable of learning math, but it’s really about transforming the method used to teach it: stepping away from “traditional” as Mr. Sinclair demonstrated and talked about. My academic inability in math has limited me in higher educational pursuit, but in the end it has been the journey that has taught me that my inability in math shall never be a barrier from higher education, but instead a teachable moment for others to learn through my educational journey.

Nathan Olson