I want to tell you a story. Everyone likes a story, right? But at the heart of my story lies a confession that I am afraid will shock many readers.

People assume that because I teach math, blog about math, give advice about math on internet forums, and present workshops about teaching math — because I do all this, I must be good at math.

In a lazy, I-don’t-want-to-do-school mood, Princess Kitten was ready to stop after three math problems. We had gotten two of them correct, but the last one was counting the ways to paint a cube in black and white, and we forgot to count the solid-color options.

For my perfectionist daughter, one mistake was excuse enough to quit. She leaned her head against me as we sat together on the couch and said, “We’re done. Done, done, done.” If she could, she would have started purring — one of the most manipulative noises known to humankind. I’m a soft touch. Who can work on math when there’s a kitten to cuddle?

Still, I managed to squeeze in one more puzzle. I picked up my whiteboard marker and started writing:

Kitten complained that some math programs keep repeating the same kind of problems over and over, with bigger numbers: “They don’t get any harder, they just get longer. It’s boring!”

So we pulled out the Counting lessons in Competition Math for Middle School. [Highly recommended book!] Kitten doesn’t like to compete, but she enjoys learning new ideas, and Batterson’s book gives her plenty of those, well organized and clearly explained.

Pizzas at Mario’s come in three sizes, and you have your choice of 10 toppings to add to the pizza. You may order a pizza with any number of toppings (up to 10), including zero. How many choices of pizza are there at Mario’s?

[The book said 9 toppings, but I was skimming/paraphrasing aloud and misread.]

When a kid is feeling bad about being stuck with a problem, or just very anxious, I sometimes ask him to make as many mistakes as he can, and as outrageous as he can. Laughter happens (which is valuable by itself, and not only for the mood — deep breathing brings oxygen to the brain). Then the kid starts making mistakes. In the process, features of the problem become much clearer, and in many cases a way to a solution presents itself.

Keith Devlin’s latest article, It Ain’t No Repeated Addition, brought me up short. I have used the “multiplication is repeated addition” formula many times in the past — for instance, in explaining order of operations. But according to Devlin:

Multiplication simply is not repeated addition, and telling young pupils it is inevitably leads to problems when they subsequently learn that it is not.

I found myself arguing with the article as I read it. (Does anybody else do that?) If multiplication is not repeated addition, then what in the world is it?

I discovered a case of MWS (Math Workbook Syndrome) one afternoon, as I was playing Multiplication War with a pair of 4th grade boys. They did fine with the small numbers and knew many of the math facts by heart, but they consistently tried to count out the times-9 problems on their fingers. Most of the time, they lost track of what they were counting and gave wildly wrong answers.