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Friday, April 27, 2007

Mao: what are the rules?

When classes ended at 2:50 this afternoon, one of my students asked me if I would like to learn how to play Mao. I said that I didn’t know anything about it, but I was indeed available after school. “What’s the game about?” I foolishly asked.

“I can’t tell you that,” Alli replied.

That sounded ominous, but I agreed. So Alli rounded up several of her friends — another junior girl, two junior boys, and a senior girl — along with a couple of other math teachers and myself. All of the students already knew this game. None of the adults knew it.

“What are the rules?” asked my colleague Sharon.

“We can’t tell you,” they all replied. “Part of the game is to figure out what the rules of the game are.”

This was quite annoying, at least for someone like me. I like to know what the rules are. At least we could tell that it involved a regular deck of cards. The dealer reluctantly gave up one piece of information: in order to win, you have to get rid of all your cards.

So the game commenced. We were each dealt some cards and proceeded to discard them in turn — except that penalties were exacted for all kinds of mysterious offenses, such as “touching cards during a point of order” or “failure to have a nice day.” As a math teacher, I’m accustomed to looking for patterns, but these were hard to discern, to say the least. It turns out that my colleague Dan figured out almost all the rules very quickly, and that was because he is an experienced card player. Apparently Mao is based on Uno, which I’ve never heard of. Since Dan knew various discard games, including Uno, he had some idea of what sort of rules might exist, and that made all the difference.

Fortunately I had no time to look up the game online, or I would have discovered what it’s all about. That would have spoiled all the fun. When I have the time, I’m going to read the entire article about it.

There’s probably a moral here about the kind of patterns we expect kids to see when they’re learning math. If you don’t have some idea of the space in which the patterns exist, you’ll find it very hard to discern them.

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