“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.

Twenty years ago, I was teaching ‘invert and multiple’ to my class of 6th graders. Previously, I’d taught the younger grades where there isn’t a need to deal with fractional divisors.

Not knowing the logic of invert and multiply, I was confronted with the vow I’d made to myself upon becoming a teacher. If I had to teach what I didn’t understand, I’d acknowledge my lack of understanding and go about doing all I could to get to the bottom of it.

My firs step was to go to my grade level colleagues. With an accumulated 75+ years of teaching experience, I assumed they would know the logic of ‘invert and multiply’. They didn’t. And they didn’t care. Their students were getting correct answers and that was all that mattered.

I’d graduated from an extremely competitive high school that specializes in math and has its share of lauded graduates. I took calculus my senior year. I got a B+, yet didn’t understand any of it. I guess I had been getting correct answers and that was all that mattered.

Getting to the bottom of ‘invert and multiply’ set me on a journey of inquiry that continues to this day. I know from my experience and the experience of others that teaching for meaning is the best and most effective way to get our students to the correct answers.

I can deeply empathize with the “getting correct answers and that was all that mattered.” The education system has become so detached from learning as a goal and strives completely for results, whilst disregarding process. The pathway to an answer, the solution, the process, is completely overlooked because students are told that the only thing that matters is a number at the end. If the number is correct, it is marked a point, if it’s not, they get a little X inked in red.

It largely teaches kids that process doesn’t matter and that, moreso, they shouldn’t care about it. It’s prescient in all of academia, whether it’s writing or reading or science or math. It discourages learning because it saps the creativity and the art out of learning and turns it solely mechanical. I feel that the massive, 50-problem worksheets that are essentially the same problem pointed over and over are the peak irony of this as it turns math into mechanical labor, that of an assembly line.

Thanks for reading the article and sharing your experience.

When I was in high school, Mr Drake, our geometry teacher had us build our own geometry book. We completed the required Euclidean geometry with several weeks left, so we went onto learn Lobachevskian geometry. We would get extra credit for solving the Pythagorean theorem in different ways. I later changed my classes around to have him as my teacher in advanced algebra. Because of how he taught me math and Mrs True, my 7th grade English teacher taught me to understand sentence structure and critical reading, I was able to translate an article written about getting evenly spaced bicycle gears on a 10 speed bike into a logarithmic formula to do that. Not that I can do that now, but that was cool.

In college when I took calculus, I was able to work word problems easily as I converted the description on English to the required math formulas. It was later that I realized I was able to do this because I had been taught math and English by some amazing teachers.

When I applied to nursing school they told me that “I would have to do math”. I told them that I had taken calculus 10 years prior and should I review anything in particular. They seemed amazed that not only had I taken calculus, but that I had actually enjoyed math. I didn’t tell them that I had to teach the nurses who were my paramedic instructors years before how to do simple dose equations during our pharmacology lessons.

Yet, when my kids were in grade school, I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what the hell they were teaching in math. They would send my kids home with assignment sheets and no book. When I asked what they were trying to teach and how did they want it done, since there was no book to reference from, they would say that they had explained it in class and my child would have to tell me. And that is why we have such dismal results in the world of math.

Let’s get back to Euclid, Pythagoras, Lobachevsky, and the other great mathematical minds and teach how they taught and thought. My generation did well by it.

The language and creativity of math are so lost in education. I’m glad that you were able to have a teacher who taught you the fundamental pillars of mathematics and gave you not only a deep understanding of the topic but also an appreciation of it.