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Curing Math Inferiority Complex

Educators in this area want students to know that there’s no such thing as a “math gene”.

To counter the notion that mathematics ability is inscribed in DNA, school officials and corporate executives are waging a public relations campaign for the hearts and minds of the average math student. Their goal is to immerse more middle school students in algebra and toughen high school math requirements so graduates can compete for increasingly technical jobs. Their message: Advanced math is not only for rocket scientists.

Agreed. However, it’s going to take a whole lot more than rap videos and a “public relations campaign” aimed at persuading students to love math.

WebFor one thing, the traditional curriculum in most American schools is far too repetitious in the early grades and does a poor job of incorporating technological tools.

Even worse, we spend way too much time teaching, drilling, and testing the mechanics of mathematics (or too often arithmetic) and not nearly enough on how the process is actually applied to real world situations.

Learning how to grind through algorithms rather than solving problems.

It’s no wonder so many students arrive at high school with both a distaste for math and a bad case of insecurity about their abilities in the subject.


  1. Mark Pullen

    Good post. I am convinced that our biggest problem in math education is that teachers teach algorithms instead of understanding. It’s not very motivating or meaningful to solve problems where your thinking includes phrases like: “invert and multiply”, “cross out the ten and make it a nine, then make the one an eleven”, and so on. And teachers do this because that’s the only way THEY understand math… making this TOUGH to change IMHO.

  2. Andrew B. Watt

    Agreed, Mark and Tim.

    moreover, programs like http://www.wolframalpha.com are going to make teaching the mechanics of algorithms much, much harder. If you can go to a website, plug in an equation, and get an answer, why bother doing the equation? It makes much more sense to teach problem-solving, in the sense that you present a real-world issue, and ask students to design the equation that will solve the problem. Then, when they plug the solution into Wolfram|Alpha, there will be clear signs of success or failure.

    But that’s a very different way to teach math than how we currently teach.

  3. Alexa Harrington

    I spent quite a large percentage of my elementary, middle, and high school years convinced that I sucked at math. Then I hit college and could no longer skate through my studies with little or no effort (as I had pre-college). It was a sad, sad day when I realized that even gifted little me was going to have to get out a pencil and start working to learn information. As soon as I did the work and absorbed the knowledge, I magically grokked math. My new-found math grokage would have made me way happier had I not simultaneously realized that I could have been kicking math’s butt for years if only I’d opened a book and applied myself. *sigh* (It was still pretty cool to finally get it).

  4. Bill Iverson

    We can all agree that rote memorization and drill are “bad,” and make-math-relevant exercises are “good.” But it’s hard for a student who can’t multiply 9 by 8 instantly and without reflection to work efficiently at solving more sophisticated chores — it’s like having to constantly stop and think “now, which gear position is 4th” when you’re trying to drive in a Grand Prix. Ditto for basic approaches toward solving quadratic equations, etc. It’s simply not efficient to have to rediscover wheels all the time, and there’s no way to internalize a lot of necessary math tools without a good deal of drill and memorization. And then there’s the thought that if drill and memorization were the cause of math boredom and anxiety, students in a number of foreign countries should be much inferior to math to American students. But quite the contrary. Hmmm. In my book the cause of “I’m bad at math” isn’t that someone has failed to make math exciting (although it should be). The problem is a classrooms where teachers who are themselves good at math have difficulty, and often make only half-hearted efforts, in encouraging weaker students, because it’s so much more fun to work with the hotshots. And worse yet, weaker students are constantly made to realize their deficiencies, every day. There are lots of good ways to teach math, and they all require some balance of drill and “isn’t this exciting and relevant.” But the way to make more students confident and enthusiastic is to truly minimize the pecking-order approach to ranking students (if only implicilty), and for teachers who are good at math to focus on the reality that not every student is as good as they are, at least not right now.

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