Monday, February 27, 2012

Hating Math

Last week I discussed my deep and abiding love for calculus. I understand not everyone feels this way, and in fact, some people don't even have the slightest hint of positive feelings toward any kind of math at all. If you're one of those, this post is for you.

I'm not going to tell you it's wrong to feel that way, or that you have to change your mind. (I will ask that you try to refrain from saying, "Ugh, I hate math!" around children who are still forming their own opinions. Can't tell you how many times I've had a student who tells me, "My mom/dad hates math and thinks it's stupid and doesn't think there's any point to learning it." Thanks for sabotaging my work, Mom/Dad.)

The people I know who hate math usually fall into a couple different categories. Some hate it because they really struggle with it no matter how hard they try. Sometimes a learning disability is involved. Sometimes nothing's been diagnosed, but it's clear their mind just isn't wired for numbers.

I recently had a student like that. Brilliant artist and some strong writing skills, but math just Would. Not. Click. Bless her, though, she kept trying and was incredibly patient, no matter how many times she had to erase and rework a problem. And the thing is, she did make progress. Not at the same pace as her peers, but she improved, because she didn't give up. She admitted she didn't like it at all, but she hung in there.

I think most of the math-haters I know, however, fall into the second category: those who had at least one really bad math teacher, usually at a critical juncture in their math education. This often happens either at fractions in elementary school, or a little later somewhere around pre-algebra/algebra, when things start to get more abstract.

What's the key to teachers not facilitating the mathematical downfall of their students? I think a big part is recognizing that many students are likely to hit a wall a those junctures, so the teacher needs to be extremely flexible. One way of explaining a tough concept isn't likely to work for everyone. If a kid isn't getting it, you have to look for another bridge to get them across.

Even bigger key—don't make the kid feel stupid for not getting it right away. Kids are good enough at doing that on their own. They don't need our help.

Many times, I've had adults watch me teach or listen to me discuss a lesson and say, "If I'd had a teacher like you, I probably would've liked math."

Best compliment I can receive, but I don't really mind the hating math. My goal with the haters in my class is for them to hate math a little less. Even if they still hate math, I try to make sure they like the class. Because if they do, their minds stay a little more open, and even if they don't want to admit it, they learn.

Are you a math-hater? If so, which category do you fall into? Or is there another reason I haven't accounted for here?


Ted Cross said...

I never loved math but I was pretty good at it. I went through all the calculus and differential equations and linear algebra courses in college, and minored in math. I feel that it's a mistake for our school system to force math on everyone. It should be sufficient to teach people up to a certain basic level, and then only those people who need math for their future careers should have to continue on with it, in my opinion. Those whose minds don't work well with numbers would be better off spending time on courses that would prepare them for what they are going to be doing.

E.B. Black said...

I hate math. I was fine at it until Algebra II and Trigonometry. Everything just stopped making sense to me at that point at all, but even before then, it was never my favorite subject. I can't really explain it, but I just lack patience and love for it.

Still, I'd never tell a kid math is useless. That's horrible to say.