Math is everywhere. From the buildings, streets, and parks you see around you that were built using math; to the cars and trains you ride in that are run using complicated equations; to the decisions at the grocery store and in restaurants that we make on a daily basis, math surrounds us. Why is it such a scary subject in schools? Why do so many students have a fear of math?
When I was in high school, I was a part of the Math Team…yes, I was that girl. But, really, I was also terrified of it! Joining this team was my way of overcoming that fear of math.
Why do so many students have a fear of math?
In a Washington Post blogpost entitled, “Why is math so hard for so many?,” Valerie Strauss summarizes a few plausible explanations. In trying to answer this questions, she refers to cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, who in turn refers to work done by David Geary, also a cognitive psychologist at the University of Missouri. In Dr. Geary’s work, the issues of learning it may be:
a) a problem with approximating quantities
b) problems associating mathematical symbols
c) problems with understanding logical relationships between numbers.
Dr. Willingham further suggests that mathematical ability may not be a “natural” human activity, suggesting that it became a human necessity faster than the population could acquire the ability through evolution.
So if math is not “natural” why do we teach it?
In our current and evolving world, mathematical skills are essential to many job opportunities that garner what is considered a good salary. Higher-paying jobs such as lawyers, doctors, engineers, and financiers require a strong foundation of math, demonstrated by college grades and admission exams that test this special ability.
But there are good jobs that don’t require math skills…
Those who work in the humanities and arts, as well as countless other jobs don’t typically require terrific grades (though kudos if you have them!) as they may rely upon other cognitive abilities such as creativity, verbal articulation, and visuo-spatial reasoning.
So why–again–should we learn math?
Math, like science, is not so much about the answers as it is about the process. It requires students to understand that there is a set of rules that governs a set of tasks. It helps you to understand that if you want to alter a system, you need to learn its structure and organization well in order to find the “loop-hole” exception. You can either be an appreciator of that structure or you can be the renegade who tries to prove its flaws. Math helps you see that the intricate and technical details matter in determining the outcome even if you understand “the big picture”. It can help you design the object you have always dreamed about or help predict the future in terms of risks, benefits, or likelihoods.
Even human behavior has mathematical implications: John Nash Jr., a mathematician and winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1994, developed game theory: a type of math that provides a mathematical framework to understand human behavior in a particular situation.
How do I succeed in math when I find it so challenging?
As with anything in life that is challenging, one has to confront their fears. While I don’t expect all students to go out and join the math club, I do hope that students can find an appreciation for the art and science of math. Tutoring and mindful teaching can help every student succeed in mathematics.
By Dr. Kathy Aligene, Private Tutor