Monday, 2 April 2012
Monday Musings: Review of Maths Doesn't Suck by Danica McKellar
(To provide context for this review, I’m a teacher of maths with nearly a decade’s experience.)
If you know Danica McKellar, you’re most likely to remember her as an actress in The Wonder Years. So why on earth has she written a book about maths? And what can a former child star possibly teach teenagers about fractions, decimals, percentages, and the rest?
Well, for a start, McKellar actually has a degree in maths. She graduated from UCLA with the highest possible honours (summa cum laude), so she knows what she’s talking about when it comes to the subject. While having excellent knowledge of maths is probably expected from people writing books about it, what’s rather rarer these days is actually having some idea of teenagers. In a section of books which are often dull, boring, and read as if the author hasn’t met anyone under 18 in the last few decades, McKellar does the unthinkable and provides a read which is hugely informative but which has a style which will actually encourage teen girls to pick it up. (I use ‘teen girls’ rather than ‘teens’ for a reason, but more about that later.)
The first refreshing thing about the book is the layout. It’s beautifully presented, with handwritten examples in places to make things clear, and several questions on each of the topics covered. It’s also hugely refreshing to see an author willing to throw in some complicated problems of the type to make teens who are less confident at maths immediately quail, but to provide step-by-step instructions which show them that actually, even the most difficult-looking question can be solved if you take the time. She also breaks the main part of the book up with ‘teen magazine’ type features including quizzes on learning styles (very good), maths horoscopes (which I could personally live without, but which only take up a few pages so I won’t complain too much) and quotes from real teens on the importance of doing well in school (great!)
I should point out that it doesn’t cover everything pupils in Years 6 – 9 will need to know in maths (although there are two more books available with a fourth coming out this year, and between the quartet I don’t think they’ll be too far off doing that.) What it does do is cover the number work which pupils constantly find challenging – fractions, decimals, percentages, factors, multiples, and a few others – and the basics of algebra really, really well. In particular, the Birthday Cake method for Lowest Common Multiples and Highest Common Factors and McKellar’s way of remembering the order in which you perform operations are superb, both significantly better than anything I can recall seeing before.
One slight moan – I appreciate its aim is to appeal to teen girls and think it does a great job of that. However, I’d have liked a few slight tweaks – at least a few boys commenting as well as the girls, or something – to make it one that boys would be more likely to pick up. The maths involved here is far too useful to not want all students to benefit from it!
Very high recommendation as a book which could be, genuinely, life-changing for younger secondary school students who struggle with maths.