Nevertheless, we spent an hour one Sunday afternoon gamely dividing dice into baggies, categorizing them by number of sides, then by colours. Along the way, we explored concepts relating to the base-ten system and the absolute basics of multiplication.

My daughter has plenty of experience with dice. They’ve been a part of her life since birth. Plush dice, foam dice, and the vast array of dice used for roleplaying games by both her parents and all their friends, were her first introduction to numbers that weren’t on her fingers. For her, dice represent fun times with friends, groups of people laughing and telling stories around the dining room table, the adults who take an interest in her life even though they aren’t related to her – and math. So it was natural that when she needed a real-life collection to bring in for Hundreds Day, her first thought was dice. Dice are math as it is in her life.

There is a great deal of emphasis in mathematics education on making math real, on finding the ways to make the numbers concrete, tactile, visual. This emphasis is a vast improvement over numbers that never left the page, because it does facilitate a deeper understanding of mathematics, and that is the ultimate goal of mathematics education. (1) But my daughter’s experience with dice is evidence that it doesn’t go far enough. For her, dice are not something a teacher brings out to show how numbers work; dice are real life that we describe using numbers. The educational establishment has been getting it backwards. The goal is not to make math real. Math is already real. The goal is to teach how reality can be described using math.

Paul Lockhart, in his article, “A Mathematician’s Lament,” discusses how mathematics is the art of pure idea. (2) When we teach it procedurally, we strip from it the inherent creativity and beauty of it; but when we use it to describe our ideas, and engage students in describing progressively more complex ideas with mathematics, we find that everything is math. There’s no need to make it real because it already is. As teachers, our vision for our students should be to bring their mathematical understandings into the classroom. Where is the math in their lives? What forms of art exist in their cultures, and in the culture to which we’re introducing them, that can further their understanding of number and pattern and relationships? It is when we follow students’ mathematical understandings and extend them that we get the deep understanding of mathematical ideas that creates lifelong learners and problem-solvers.