The benefits of math competitions are well known: focusing on goals, dealing with pressure, learning teamwork, and building friendships are among those typically mentioned. Math competitions also allow for the much needed celebration of intellectual achievement the way athletic achievement has always been celebrated. At IMACS, many of our math enrichment students enjoy competing in the American Mathematics Competitions, International Mathematical Olympiad, and MATHCOUNTS, among other contests, so we have a very positive view of math competitions, particularly for the kids who thrive in that environment. We’re extremely proud of our numerous students over the years who have performed well in these prestigious contests. We’re equally proud of our numerous students over the years who have thrived in quiet contemplation.
Most parents are cognizant of today’s ultra-competitive global environment, and many feel a sense of urgency to nudge, push, or even pressure their kids to achieve. It’s not a stretch to imagine the parents of a mathematically talented child thinking, “If all the other kids are involved in math and science, then my child should be doing even more.” But here’s the thing: What makes an activity suitable for even more depends on what works for your child and is not necessarily the same activity enjoyed by all the other kids but with more time dedicated to it or with better results.
For parents considering activities for their mathematically talented child, it is important to understand how innate personality factors into the mix that determines whether math contests provide a net positive experience for that child. Just as there are natural-born competitors among mathematically talented students, there are also natural-born dreamers. These kids used to get a bad rap for being unfocused, undisciplined, and even lazy. There was no observable productivity associated with daydreaming so, of course, it had to be a waste of time. Not so fast. In 2009, researchers from the University of British Columbia published a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences detailing that brain activity increases when our minds wander. Reporting on this finding, ScienceDaily.com put it well:
Brain areas associated with complex problem-solving – previously thought to go dormant when we daydream – are in fact highly active during these episodes.
If your child is more of a dreamer (or just not drawn to competition), activities that would cultivate his or her talent in and appreciation for mathematics may differ from what is offered through a typical regional, national, or international math contest. Students of this personality type often find more success and satisfaction with math enrichment programs—like IMACS—that focus on deep problem-solving over computational prowess. This is not to say that your child shouldn’t at least try participating in some type of competitive math. The experience just might open up a different side of his or her mathematical personality. In fact, our math enrichment classes use game-playing and mini-competitions as teaching tools, and most of our students really enjoy this aspect of the class the best.
For parents of talented children, the secrets of mathematical success are really not that different from general advice on positive parenting. They include understanding what kind of child you have, knowing what motivates him or her, and fostering an environment that includes the kind of math activities or, quite possibly, freedom from structured activities that align best with that motivation. And if having a dreamer for a child still makes you worry, just think about the great mathematical and scientific discoveries we owe to dreamers of the past. You never know what grand ideas are simmering behind those eyes staring off into the distance.
Dreamer matching puzzle
We made a simple matching game involving some famous historical thinkers who made great breakthroughs during dreamy activities. See if you or your kids can match the thinker with his profound idea and what he was reportedly doing at the time moment of insight. Answers are below.
Great Thinker: (A) Archimedes, (B) Newton, (C) Einstein, (D) Descartes, and (E) Tesla.
Profound Idea: (1) special relativity, (2) coordinate geometry, (3) alternating electrical currents, (4) calculating the volume of an irregularly shaped object, and (5) law of universal gravitation.
Dreamy Activity: (i) lying in bed watching flies on the ceiling, (ii) taking a bath, (iii) watching an apple fall from a tree in an orchard, (iv) taking a walk, and (v) imagining trains and lightning.
Answers to puzzle: [A-4-ii], [B-5-iii], [C-1-v], [D-2-i ], and [E-3-iv].