40 X 30 = 70. 35 X 4 = 200. 420 + 80 = 130. The illogical results of these calculations performed by teenagers in a study (Nunes, Schliemann, and Carraher 24-25) are by no means a puzzle to be solved. Instead, they clearly hint at the inefficacy of mathematical education in schools. In the referred study, participants were often unable to solve written math problems using the procedures they had been learning at school, which contrasted with their success in solving equally difficult problems by using strategies of their own. If children are only underperforming when trying to apply skills taught in school, then it follows that they are not learning these skills successfully. Moreover, instead of having their deficits diagnosed and tackled in due course, these students manage to meet minimum requirements and graduate from high school with little more than elementary mathematical skills. This scenario must be reversed.
One of the causes of this problem is that most children are taught that being bad at math is not an issue. Their parents, their relatives, their older friends, many of the people they come in contact with will often say that they are bad at math. To them, it seems like their math teacher is the only one who is not. Jonathan Wai, a research scientist, states that being bad at math is socially acceptable — as opposed to being bad at reading, for instance. Admitting to being bad at math in a conversation is more likely to generate feelings of compassion, whereas saying that one has trouble reading will instantly put their intellect into question. This position is sustained by the way many people think of math skills as something you have to be born with rather than something you can acquire.
University professors Miles Kimball and Noah Smith argue that this way of thinking prevents students from improving their performance. If learning difficulties arise, students often assume they are just not good enough and fail to make the effort needed in order to move to the next level. Lack of intelligence, they believe, is what hinders their performance in math. However, studies (Blackwell, Trzesniewski, and Dweck) have shown that intelligence is not a fixed asset and can be developed through hard work. Students who learn that they are able to improve their intelligence feel motivated to work harder and, in accordance with that mindset, are actually able to improve their performance.
It is therefore clear that motivation plays a major role in the learning process. Sadly, motivating children is exactly where many teachers fail. All too often, a typical math lesson will include a teacher incessantly writing numbers and symbols on the blackboard, a handful of confused students trying their best to follow and the others mechanically copying it all down whilst thinking about anything other than mathematics. Our world is full of mathematics and there can be many ways to make its learning meaningful, yet so many teachers choose to teach something as mundane as, say, geometry using the dullest possible methods.
In fact, dull has become standard. Children grow up hearing that everyone is bad at math, they are not reminded that they can improve by working harder and many teachers are satisfied with rote learning, unable to engender and keep children’s interest in math. However, a fair degree of mathematical thinking is of utmost importance to understanding much of our world and it only gets more important with the current trends in technology and globalisation. It is high time we started encouraging our children to acquire mathematical skills. Only with a general change of attitude towards learning math will improvements be made possible.
Blackwell, Lisa S., Kali H. Trzesniewski, and Carol S. Dweck. “Implicit Theories of Intelligence Predict Achievement Across an Adolescent Transition: A Longitudinal Study and an Intervention.” Child Development, 78.1 (2007): 246–263. Web. 22 May 2015.
Kimball, Miles, and Noah Smith. “The Myth of ‘I’m Bad at Math.’” The Atlantic. 28 Oct 2013. Web. 22 May 2015.
Nunes, Terezinha, Analucia D. Schliemann, and David W. Carraher W. Street Mathematics and School Mathematics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993. Print.
Skemp, Richard. The Psychology of Learning Mathematics. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1987. Print.
Wai, Jonathan. “Why Is It Socially Acceptable To Be Bad At Math?” Psychology Today. 25 Mar 2012. Web. 22 May 2015.