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Activating Wonder & Fascination in Learning with Danica McKellar

In addition to her lifelong acting career, Danica McKellar is an internationally recognized mathematician and advocate for math education. A summa cum laude graduate of UCLA with a degree in Mathematics, Danica has been honored in Britain’s esteemed Journal of Physics and the New York Times for her work in mathematics, most notably for her role as co-author of a ground-breaking mathematical physics theorem which bears her name (The Chayes-McKellar-Winn Theorem).

How do you add more fascination and wonder into learning and life?

You heard me say many times that all learning is state dependent. The state you’re in while learning is so important because that information combined with emotion is what helps you to remember what you learned.

We have an extraordinary guest, Danica McKellar. She’s best known for her roles on The Wonder Years and The West Wing, as well as a three-time New York Times bestselling author, internationally-recognized mathematician, and advocates for math education – and now a new mom.

In today’s episode, we’re going to talk about the power of wonder, the power of play, and how you can add more of it in your life.

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"If you believe something wasn’t meant for you, instead of seeming like temporary obstacles, stumbling blocks will feel like evidence of what you’ve known all along: that you don’t belong."


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  • You can check out Danica’s math books at mckellarmath.com.
  • All learning is state dependent: the information gets associated with the emotional state you were in while learning.
  • Unless you have a deep interest in a topic or a positive association with it, you won’t engage in it and learn it very well.
  • If you don’t have this positive association it can become an active negative association with the subject which will prevent you from learning.
  • Math has a bad rap: too hard, scary, difficult.
  • Many people confessing to Danica: could never do the math, or, could do it for a while until the one point in their life where they couldn’t do math anymore.
  • The preconception of the subject: if you tell yourself you’re not going to be good at something, while you’re doing fine at it you’re actually waiting for a piece of evidence to demonstrate that it’s true and put the nail in the coffin you had set up for yourself.
  • If you’re optimistic about math or anything difficult, when you hit a temporary stumbling block you will tend to see it as just that: a temporary stumbling block.
  • If you believe it wasn’t meant for you, instead of seeming like temporary obstacles, stumbling blocks will feel like evidence of what you’ve known all along: that you don’t belong in math.
  • The reputation our society has created for math: just for nerds, boys, people that don’t have a social life—but there are benefits to learning math, and anybody can be good at math.


  • In seventh grade Danica had a math class she didn’t understand and thought it was her—then she got a teacher that made it fun: taught functions with stories and associations.
  • As the student you never assume or imagine that it’s the teacher’s fault, especially since they’re an authority figure at that point in life—you assume that you just don’t get it.
  • Wrote McKellar Math book to shake off stigma and make math fun—the way it is presented will tell your brain how to view it and how well you’re going to absorb it.
  • Danica’s book mentioned: Do Not Open This Math Book.
  • Math in classrooms has been changed recently to ‘common core’: changing terms and vocabulary.
  • As a parent, you want to be your child’s superhero: to have the answers and help them get to the next place.
  • Can use Danica’s books to rediscover math as an adult if you’ve had bad experiences.
  • Book mentioned: Math Doesn’t Suck.


  • Remember hope isn’t a strategy: important to avoid talking about having things (I have motivation, I have creativity), but doing things.
  • You don’t have wonder, you can do wonder: by adding games, stories.
  • When learning is fun you’re more motivated to do it and will learn concepts better.
  • Even if the classroom environment isn’t ideal, students can use their imagination and creativity to change up their learning and make it more fun.
  • There are plenty of tips and stories in Danica’s books to make learning math fun.
  • One of the fastest ways to learn something is to teach it to other people.


  • Don’t forget to take a screenshot of this episode, tag us both on social media (@danicamckellar & @jimkwik) and share your greatest “aha!” moment from this episode with us!



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