A Different Kind of String Theory

We have a crisis in our education system. Sure, we’ve heard it before, but it needs to be stated again, particularly at a time when the United States is finding it difficult to compete in the very fields — math, science, technology — that are shaping the global economy. Consider that American high school students graduate with just a 32 percent proficiency rate in math, according to a Harvard study — a figure that puts America behind 31 other countries, including Japan, Korea, Switzerland and Canada.

I propose a solution: Let’s revolutionize our schools by teaching our children how to do string figures.

I came upon the idea of using string figures — not just Cat’s Cradle or Jacob’s Ladder, but thousands of figures from many sources and cultures — as an educational tool while teaching math for more than 20 years at New York’s LaGuardia High School (yes, the Fame school devoted to the arts, but an outstanding academic institution in its own right). Eventually, I was given the option of devoting one entire class to strings and was constantly amazed at how much the students benefited from learning this folk-art tradition (I’m a Native American myself) that can bedazzle the eye and challenge the mind. I became interested in replicating this educational approach with younger students and am convinced that the elementary school level is the proper one for introducing string figures — the younger the mind, the more open-minded the student is.

Why string figures? Because man is a hand animal. Humans became smart because our hands allowed us to develop and employ our intelligence. Therefore, the hands should lead the young modern human to learn how best to develop their unique capabilities to prepare for a full and rich life. It’s all about forging a connection between brain and hand — you create and discern pattern from your handiwork, so to speak. And you can take that understanding of pattern and apply it in any number of ways, especially in the technical realm. To know how to manipulate string is to know how to solve a complex mathematical equation. Or create a computer program. Or build a bridge.

But what do strings specifically teach in terms of school-age math? It’s actually rather obvious: The figures allow students to wrap their minds around the sort of formulas that legions of mediocre math teachers have struggled to explain. Algebra isn’t about “A squared plus B squared equals C squared.” It’s about representation of pattern. With string figures, patterns are made real: One movement of one hand — or even one finger — creates a change in the pattern. Children see the logic because they literally see it — in the interwoven strings that become works of art unto themselves (I always make sure to provide strings of many different colors to students, so as to add to the visual impact).

Moreover, children don’t just see — they feel pride in what they’ve created. It’s a sense of accomplishment that can never be derived from simply telling students they’ve done a good job — or, even worse, by relying on a testing system that has only fostered bitterness and cynicism from students and teachers alike. Children must internalize a respect of self.

How do I know all this is true? Not one of my students failed to perform far above their expectations in all my teaching of string figures. Moreover, there is a joy of discovery that each of my students has talked to me about. It is they who constantly surprised me with new methods of imagining figures. This curriculum represents a unique opportunity to shape a young person’s feelings about their intellectual abilities and about their capacity to learn.

And it’s a curriculum that is surprisingly simple in scope, based on only five figures. The students begin by learning the basic patterns thoroughly. From there, they investigate introducing differences into the figures — the subtle manipulations of fingers and hands that can lead to complex and daringly different results. Over time, they also learn by teaching — not just teaching those within the classroom about a variation they’ve stumbled upon, but also teaching those outside the classroom about this brave new vocabulary they now speak. By winning “converts,” they reinforce the lessons they’ve learned.

In the end, every student comes to realize that nothing is too hard to master. I have seen the results as the years have passed: Most of my students — a group that, by the way, included a large number from low-income families — went on to college. Today, their ranks include architects, actors, musicians and even math teachers. I’m proudest when I see them with a string still wrapped around their wrist, waiting to be manipulated into a new figure.

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