Monday, August 8, 2011

Seeing Differently

These did not look like numbers to me...
We learned Roman numerals sometime in elementary school. I remember wondering why we needed to know this system, because I didn't remember ever seeing them outside of school. Everything else in math I could see being useful in some way, but not this part. Worse, when it came to actually doing things with numbers, these ones clearly defied all the rules we'd been taught, which seemed confusing and therefore counterproductive. The teacher explained that they were used a long time ago by people living far away, which did not help with my relevance question at all.

As an adult, my respect for Roman numerals does not come from their functional usage, but simply from the process of learning itself. As I struggled to work with these rule-breaking "numbers," I could grasp just a little bit better the conceptual nature of math underlying the mechanics of it. Through Roman numerals, I saw other ways to accomplish the same purposes. And I began to realize that even something so foundational as a numbering system had been developed over time. School was not just about memorizing stuff and figuring out how to follow step-by-step instructions; sometimes it is about creating something new or re-creating it better. It is about learning to think more thoroughly and more flexibly. And it is not just acceptable to discover others' perspectives, but a desirable skill.

I still don't see the point of actually using Roman numerals in everyday life, but from what I discovered in the process, I'd say it was good use of class time.

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