I recently read an article on Shakuntala Devi – an Indian writer and mathematician, popularly known as “the human computer.” She was considered a gifted child, and her math skills eventually gave her a place in the Guinness Book of World Records.* As a pre-schooler, she could memorize an entire deck of cards from beginning to end. At the age of 5, she was extracting cube roots in her head. She could tell the day of the week that someone was born seconds after learning their birth date. In her early years, she famously solved a tough mathematical problem 10 seconds before the fastest computer at the time.
You might think that Devi spent huge amounts of time with a math tutor, and advanced math classes. But the truth is that her father noticed her incredible talent while he was a circus performer – a trapeze artist, lion tamer, and magician. He saw his daughter’s math skills while teaching her a card trick at the age of 3. Her father worked with her tirelessly, while continuing to showcase her amazing memorization skills across India, and eventually the globe. Devi may have been naturally gifted, yes – but she would not have become the force that she did without a dedication to her practice and an immense joy in numbers themselves. We often want our students to succeed so much, that we forget about that playfulness piece. Devi was enamored by numbers – they were like a second language to her, and they could be found anywhere. What stimulated that curiosity? What led to her intense enjoyment of numbers? And was it just luck that led her to be born to a circus performer, who could hone that skill into a talent that was broadcast to the world?
More importantly, how do we teach it?
*The math problem that got her there? She demonstrated the multiplication of two 13-digit numbers (7,686,369,774,870 × 2,465,099,745,779) in her head in just 28 seconds.