Math Is Not Scary

Anna wrote an awesome post about math. I decided to post my response here, since it’s long. Thanks Anna for the brain-nudge.

Hubby is an engineer. Math is his natural vocabulary. I, on the other hand, am not a engineer, but I “get” math. Particularly math theory, if not actual equations.

I get annoyed by the math question. I get annoyed because the math question is always asked from a place of fear. How many adults actually use math skills beyond 6th grade understanding? And of the adults who do more advanced math, how many of them are “natural” math thinkers? I’d guess – most of them.

If a person is naturally attuned to math, doesn’t it make sense that they will pursue it cuz it’s interesting for them? Or, if math is part of another topic that they love a lot (say, oh, Pokemon, or carpentry, or ballistics), then doesn’t it make sense that they will learn the math they need to figure it out?

Why is there so much fear that people won’t learn enough math to do what they need to do? That somehow, if kids aren’t formally introduced to higher math concepts, they will just, oh, not notice that there’s math out there and steer clear of it?

The reason that people freak out about math is because there’s an idea that it’s “hard”. But really, the only hard math is the math that we don’t need.

How many people would say that it’s “hard” to figure out the tip on a bill, or to balance a check book? And of the people who say that’s hard, how many of those people were forced to go through drills and formal math training? It’s not like people who think math is “hard” were ignored, and the people who think math is “easy” were given all the pushing and formal math training that other kids weren’t. Everyone gets pushed in school to do math. Yet, there is a huge variety of how well people do with it, and how much people like it.

Today we have a serious lack of scientists and people who do jobs that have to do with higher math. Computer engineering is probably one of the few exceptions. Why is this? Why do people think math is scary? Because we are taught that it is scary from the very beginning, by being told over and over that if we don’t learn it NOW, we’ll NEVER get it. We need to learn math NOW, or we’re screwed. And if we don’t go farther than algebra, we’re “math challenged” or “not good at math”.

For our kids who are fortunate enough not to be brain-stuffed with the “math is hard so do it everyday in a workbook or you’re screwed” message, the trick is to keep our own fears of math from trickling into their lives. Let them have their OWN relationship with math – whatever that’s going to be. If they are naturally math inclined, they will “get it” and like it. If math isn’t all that interesting, they will do it when they need it, ask for help when they can’t figure it out, and move on. It will be a tool. Not a scary, hard, impossible tool. But just one of the many tools that we need to use to get by in life.

Math is everywhere. In games, puzzles, projects, problem solving, life skills… the math in workbooks, that’s supplementary to all the stuff in the world. Workbooks are fine, but if that’s the main, or only, place a person is being exposed to math, then it’s no wonder that kids don’t care for math, or that they think it’s hard – it’s doesn’t mean anything to them.

So, find math in the real world – especially concrete math. And if the kiddo likes workbooks, great. Use them. But if he doesn’t, find math out there in the world we live in and use it. Use it to solve problems, create things and change the world. Use math, and everything else for that matter, to engage with the world we live in, and understand it better.

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4 Responses to “Math Is Not Scary”

  1. Brian Foley Says:

    Hi, Tammy,
    I really like your take on things. Great blog. And your math thoughts make so much sense. I’m the mathmojo.com guy, and I feel that so many people make math a chore for themselves because they were damaged by an education system that had elementary teachers who hated math, and hated teaching it.

    I hope un, de, and homeschooling parents will relax about math before they start trying to teach it.
    There are so many good books about it, like “Innumeracy” by Paulos. Then there is the best book ever, as far as I am concerned, by Isaac Asimov, called “The Realm of Numbers.” It’s out of print, but you can find a copy on the web, easily. It will help every parent “get it.

    As far as “reasons” to learn math – I think there are none. What I mean is, learing math is the same as learning Zen in some ways. If you are learning it to accomplish some ulterior motive, you may be sabotaging yourself. Once you learn about the beauty and fun of math, then math becomes part of you, like thought itself.

    This was more or less the attitude of Archimedes (who fed us pi). Although a great engineer, he hated “applied math.” He loved “math for math’s sake.”

    Keep up the inspirational work!

    Hotcha,

    Brian

  2. Lena Says:

    It may be interesting to know that this is, again, very much a cultural thing. Homeschooling is almost illegal in my country, so almost everything I read about it is from people in the US. I was so surprised about all the fuss about math. Where I live (the Netherlands) math is much less an issue. When homeschooling, people worry about the usual issues such as socialization, but not about math. Also in schools math just isn’t really an issue, not more or less than any other subject.

    On another note, I find it so fascinating to see how much my daughter picks up about it all by herself. She is three now, and actively designs “math problems” for herself. She’ll say (without any prompting or even exampling from me) “There are four popsicles. That’s two for you and two for me. Hey, but I want three. Then there’s one for you left.” It is so great to see her find out all these things on her own and it would be such a shame to formalize this too soon.

  3. tobeme Says:

    Tammy,
    You make some excellent points. I was not very good in math when I was in school. I simply did not see an application at that time for knowing higher math skills. As I got older, math became easier, the reason it became easier was because I had to learn math to do things that I wanted it to do. I needed math, therefore, I was open to learning it. Most of the higher math that I now know, I have taught myself.

  4. Anna Says:

    The craziest thing about me is that I LOVE math. I do a quirky thing where I count the number of letters when I talk and try to get it to be a multiple of five (because I am counting on my fingers). I love to find equations in house numbers, license plates and phone numbers. Yet, I got the idea that it was too hard for me…..whatever.


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