Writer Calvin Trillin once said, “I never did very well in math, I could never seem to persuade the teacher that I hadn’t meant my answers literally.”
Let’s face it, many of us and many students have felt the same way when it comes to the subject.
Frankly, it’s a polarizing topic; some students relish the subject, thriving with every perfectly executed problem, while others shrink self consciously into their seats, hoping they will not be called on to find an answer. But why is this?
On a culturally subconscious level, we’ve come to accept bad advice as the truth. But it’s time to dismantle some of the worst advice we’ve ever heard.
#1. You shouldn’t expect her to do as well as the boys, everyone knows boys are naturally better at math.
Here’s the problem with this first one: it seems girls never got this memo. In fact, in a 2011 study by by Jonathan M. Kane, professor of mathematics and computer science, and Janet E. Mertz, professor of oncology at the University of Wisconsin Whitewater and Madison, tested girls and boys around the world and found that overall, the average was the same for both genders. The disparity occurred in nations with less gender equality, like Yemen, than with more, like Norway.
The study points to a strong possibility that gender bias has undercut girls’ natural ability to advance at the same rate as boys.
Even more curious, we’ve had an idea what’s behind this for over two decades, through Mary Pipher’s work in Reviving Ophelia. There’s a unique down turn in grades for girls in this subject, starting when they reach puberty. Pipher asserts that the cultural bias negatively impacts girls, in decreased scores, and increased introversion.
#2 No one really needs high school math in “the real world”.
Many students wonder why they have to know the difference between an isoceles triangle and an obtuse triangle, or about geometry at all.
However, there’s a good reason. Whether it’s algebra, calculus or geometry, students learn important problem-solving skills through learning math. This is a transferable skill set students can bring to increasing their analytical thinking skills, applying problem-solving strategies or honing their logic and deduction skills. In fact, students with a strong foundation in high school math are better equipped in college, when they put those skills to work in “real world” application majors like accounting, computer science and even law.
According to the University of Warwick’s Mathematics Institute, math students learn analytical and problem solving skills, such as “manipulating precise and intricate ideas, following complex reasoning” and learning to look at a problem with confidence, even if the answer isn’t first clear.
#3 Just use a calculator to figure it out.
At some point, you’ve experienced dining out in a group where at least one (or many) members become frazzled, unsure of how much to contribute, along with tip and tax.
Even with tip applications on smart phones, many people do not understand how to apply the information. Using a calculator is senseless, if you don’t understand the steps behind getting an answer. Calculators should be an efficient compliment to finding an answer, checking your work, not the sole instrument if you don’t understand.
#4 Don’t bother using materials to teach, they’re too difficult to manage in a class.
The National Center for Education Statistics found in the last decade American students are below average in math compared to other countries, such as China, Japan, South Korea and Singapore.
But using manipulatives, or materials, greatly increases learning.
Seasoned teachers know that using materials, such as math tiles, greatly increases student’s ability to learn in math, from elementary grades through high school. Systematic and explicit instruction in the subject, which should also include responsible materials management, sets a foundation for students early on to learn problem solving strategies in math. By using materials, students have both a visual and kinesthetic learning tool, even helping them to think algebraically, which they can start to do as early as first or second grade, depending on an individual student’s development.
We’ve deconstructed why this advice not only doesn’t serve us, but has caused us more harm than good.
But how can we change this faulty thinking? More engagement and education for both students and adults, about the shortage in many math-based, high-paying occupations, like the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math sectors (or STEM), might be a good impetus forward.