“It makes me feel really stupid, I have a very hard time comprehending it.”
“It makes me feel bad. I feel less intelligent.”
“I just get frustrated.”
When I inform people I’m a math major, I usually get one of a few responses that range anywhere from “oh man, I hate math” to “how can you do that?” Math is somewhat like art—most people tell artists, “it’s amazing that you’re great at art, but I could never do that.” The same happens with math—“I could never do that.” The United States ranks extraordinarily low in the world for mathematical comprehension at a whopping 25th place. Although it’s no surprise that the U.S. lags behind most of the world in K-12 education, it is embarrassing compared to the considerably higher rankings for other skill sets, such as reading comprehension. Why is it so acceptable in America to hate math? Why do a majority of students and adults not just hate math, but despise it?
I would be hard-pressed to argue most people enjoy or participate in reading as a hobby—I doubt even a quarter of Portland State students read books outside of required class reading—but if you were to state that “reading isn’t for me,” you would get less nods or mustered agreement, but concern instead. We consider reading literacy to be an important part of life—an important part of being an adult, to the point where we advertise technical writing skills on our LinkedIn pages and resumes.
The problem isn’t about liking math, it’s about disliking it. Mathematical literacy should be encouraged, not discouraged. But, if we want it to be encouraged, if we think it’s worthy of being encouraged, then why is its reputation as a subject so notorious?
Comments like the ones featured aren’t unique to just math. English as a second language learners display a similar sort of frustration—they struggle to understand the functionality of English as a language because it’s so different from any other language. The reality is math is a language. It’s a very specific type of skill set that requires its own type of critical thinking. The secret to success in math is not knowing how to solve specific types of problems, but to generalize those solution types to know how to solve any problem.
American education as a whole is incredibly reactionary. We read a book, and are expected to write a paper describing our opinions or analysis of the book. Similarly, with math, we learn how to solve a specific type of problem, whether that’s simply long division/multiplication or calculating the volume of an object, and then are given a long worksheet asking us to do that specific type of problem several dozen times.
The problem here is that, although we learn how to do these skills such as calculating volume or finding the slope of a line, we never actually learn why those things matter or why those solutions work. Why does long division work? How does it work? Why should I care? Students now more than ever have less motivation to learn basic arithmetic skills because we walk around with calculators in our pockets.
What the Common Core education system has done is generated students who can divide a nine-digit number by a four-digit number, but cannot explain the importance of the y-intercept in a linear equation. This contrasts deeply to the New Math philosophy of the 1960s, which aimed to start students’ math education at an abstract level by teaching them concepts from set theory, group theory and abstract algebra. The success of New Math was that students developed a deep understanding of critical thinking and mathematical literacy, but couldn’t multiply seven by eight.
This contrasts entirely with modern math education, which teaches students rigorous applicable math, but completely, desperately fails to show them any of the artistic, rhetoric and interesting details of math. Kids, despite what most people say, are incredibly eager to learn. I love showing math to young kids. I love showing them cool things that make their jaw drop, as if they were reacting to a magic trick and not just simple arithmetic. By showing eager, young students math is nothing more than number-crunching, you are massacring any potential interest or love they could have in the subject.
The solution isn’t to change what we’re teaching kids, but to change how we’re teaching it. Math can be incredibly visual—YouTube channels like Numberphile, Khan Academy and 3Blue1Brown use visuals and animation to show advanced math concepts in a way that requires absolutely no mathematical background. Requiring teachers to have mathematical understanding is certainly impractical given the overall job market and necessity for teachers, but is still incredibly important. We don’t need to force kids to like math, we just need them to understand that it can be cool and fun. We need to stop making it acceptable to hate math, because doing so only disadvantages people. Marginalized youth and women often have poor experiences with math, which is usually the lead deterrent toward entering the STEM field. Encouraging future generations to explore math is a surefire path to a better future.