I Hate Math

Picture the scene: You are at the neighborhood barbecue, milling around, eating, drinking and making small talk.  Some neighbors you don’t know well start up a conversation and naturally ask what you do for a living, to which you respond, “I am a math teacher.”  One or more of the following responses probably follows:

  • Oh, I hated math in school!
  • Math was my worst subject.
  • I’ve never understood algebra – all those symbols
  • My poor kids have inherited my bad math genes
  • I’m sorry.
  • Ugh, math is horrible.  How do you do it?

Rarely do we hear something like “Really?  That’s terrific!  Math is so interesting!”  What does it say about our society when the most typical response to “I am a math teacher” is one of fear, inadequacy or disgust?

This has been bothering me more and more of late, especially with increased pressure from Race to the Top and Common Core State Standards to improve mathematics instruction and raise student math achievement.  How do we reconcile this societal pressure to do better at math with the societal acceptance that it’s okay to hate math, math is boring, math is hard, and math is only for the “smart people”? How can we inspire students to excel at and engage in mathematics when they are bombarded with messages telling them it’s acceptable to dislike math, math is no fun, and it’s okay to do poorly in math?

Perhaps this conflict between what our society says we want to see in mathematics and what we really believe about mathematics explains some of the trepidation behind teacher’s embracing The Common Core State Standards. We are asking math teachers to fight peer pressure. We know that’s a tough battle, and not done without the support and encouragement of like-minded people.

What’s the solution?

Two key components are long-term, quality training and a strong, supportive learning community. The typical one or two day training models are insufficient for helping teachers change their mathematical instructional practice in a way that truly impacts student learning. Time and collaboration are crucial – time to learn and practice that learning, and time to collaborate with others about the learning and struggles of implementation in order to get feedback and support.

Administrative support and awareness of what Common Core math classrooms will look like is also crucial. Support not only in providing the long term training, time, and opportunities for collaboration, but more importantly support for failure.  Changing instructional practices to create engaging, contextual math classrooms is going to be difficult for many. Math teachers are going to fail occasionally the first few times they try something new – and that needs to be okay.  There needs to be administrative awareness that real change won’t happen overnight and that math classrooms are going to look and behave differently and that student learning is not just a score on a standardized test.

If school districts adopting the Common Core are not willing to provide quality professional development, time, collaboration and support for teachers, then teachers will succumb to peer-pressure and continue to teach math as they always have.  Students will continue to say “I hate math” and society will continue to accept that as normal.

19 thoughts on “I Hate Math”

  1. I just argued with students on Friday. Their side: Math (and school) is entirely relevant. My side: All school learning is irrelevant.

    Honestly, my universal reaction [from others] to being a math teacher: “Wow, that’s great. I always got a lot out of math.”

    1. Danny,

      First, lucky you to get the ‘wow, that’s great’. Definitely not my experience. So, all school learning is irrelevant? I don’t know that I agree with that per se – I think maybe how we instruct may be irrelevant? Not sure….tell me more.

    1. Bon, I love it!! Hilarious and I think it’s worth trying, so I am definitely going to start. I don’t think people realize how insulting it is to basically discredit our life interest?!!! I will test the theory and report back!

  2. How can people say they hate math? I love this topic. I think it is central the success of math and science education. How do we draw people into a world we find fascinating. I say we. I am not a math teacher but a phone representative for Key but I identify with the dilemma here. I’ve seen significant others in my life recoil at math. I’ve been to Adult Ed conferences and seen teachers draw a substantial arch walking around the Key booth whispering to another, “that is my worst subject” or “I don’t do math”. I’ve been on the phone with many parents wanting the best for their children but stressed out because of their own math dread.

    My sense is some people have a “wrong” phobia. Math has a reputation for making people wrong. Nobody likes to be wrong really but Math and science people feel empowered to work on an abstract problem until they solved the puzzle. From this they are able to take feel good and take some pride. I have felt this in my own small way. Others I know have not.

    When posed with a literary puzzle or a “who done it” riddle one generally appreciates the writer who drew you off course and enjoy the spoils of finding the right answer. But with math it is different. The reader/student carries the heavy burden of making things right. Not only that but they offer a solution at their own peril. Wrong answers are the fault of the reader and not celebrated like a good mystery.

    Math phobic people generally don’t feel they have what it takes, the smarts or the perception to find the right answer. To me it’s a matter of empowerment. For many the motivation to work on a challenging math problem evaporated long ago. Empowerment can dry up by its self but more often it is helped along by those around us. Are we looking for the right answer without valuing the process? If we are valuing the process are others with us on the journey?

    Don’t be so quick to compare yourselves to English teachers. The study English mechanics does not rate high on the list of favorite topics any more than the study of math calculations. You don’t have to be good at English to enjoy a classic story. Even so, the classics of history and culture get low grades from students when taught as a dry memory of the way things were. Math surely has its classic counterpart.

    But what is pop culture math and what is state of the art math? Can this be taught? Can a single equation be taught over the course of a week or month like a good story? What are the motivations of the characters, what is at stake, what approaches can be taken and then how many solutions are left at end?

    It’s easy to pigeonhole people with stereo typed ideas we do think people do. I’m no math teacher. I support teachers, answering the phone for Key. What do you think of me? Breaking through is a challenge for personal identity, but even more, it’s a challenge for relevant teaching.

    1. Jim,

      I think you have hit on a key component of what’s wrong with the way we teach math – the idea of right and wrong. It’s so tied in to all the standardized testing where students are judged based on whether they have the right answer, which pervades how they are then taught. You have really summed it up nicely – we are so focused on the right answers, and sadly, the ‘one right approach’, when math, as you say, should really be about empowerment to find a solution, not get the answer. The journey towards the solution is what we have taken away from students and what unfortunately has led to all this math phobia.

      It’s so easy as teachers, knowing what is expected on standardized tests, to focus the students on the one way to get to a right answer, when in fact we should be encouraging, or empowering them, as you say, to develop their own understandings, struggle through, find their way to a solution or explanation, even if it’s NOT the one we expected. Or even if it’s not the right one. Students can’t persevere if they are never given a chance to be wrong and to try again….if they are always expected to be right, and failure is not an option, which unfortunately is what we tend to promote.

      Thanks for the great analogies….really thoughtful. Who says you’re not a math teacher?

  3. I’m one of those people who hates math. I don’t mind arithmetic, but all of the other maths can burn in hell. Oh, I understand that without the maths we wouldn’t have bridges, skyscrapers, and many other wonders of engineering and architecture. But we also wouldn’t have nuclear and chemical weapons — two things, among many other math-induced horrors, we would be better off without. I’m willing to throw out the good with the bad, and everyone else should too.

    1. Michael,

      Wow….not sure how to respond to that. I agree, we wouldn’t have nuclear and chemical weapons, but we also wouldn’t have computers, the internet, electricity….. It’s a catch 22. Can’t throw out the good with the bad. Perhaps this ties back to helping students learn in context – understanding through connection and consequences, not just formulas with no basis in reality?

  4. Was your degree awarded in math education or pure math?

    How long have your worked in private enterprise? I teach at both the high school level and at the local junior college.

    I am concerned, at least with my deep understanding of math, that the content poor/pedagogy rich products being sold by private companies to school districts are KILLING quality math instruction.

    I am more inclined to ditch the entire math improvement infrastructure and hire teachers with master’s in pure math and have them teach ALL high school courses. The termination of all of the math education contracts could easily pay the salaries of these real experts.

    This is along the lines of Hong Kong, Singapore, Finland, and South Korea. We do not need more stuff and tricks. We need more content from real subject matter experts. And higher pay will attract them to a profession with a horrible reputation for its treatment of the best and brightest.

    An average student will learn immensely more from a real math teacher than they will from thousand of pounds of math games, manipulatives, and the latest whiz bang techno flap doodle.

    Take a gander at any on-line math lecture at MIT. Where is the whiz bang? You guessed it. It is between the ears of the instructor.

    1. Bill,

      Sorry I have taken so long to respond! Been on vacation.

      To answer your question, my undergrad degree is in Mathematics and my Masters is in Math Curriculum and Education and my doctorate will be in Curriculum and Educational Technology. I have worked in the private enterprise for about 4 years, though I teach mathematics both online and face-to-face to teachers currently as part of my job.

      I understand your reasoning, though I will be honest that I don’t agree with you. I have experienced, both personally and professionally, teachers who have a pure math degree. As a student, I had a much more difficult time with a professor who just taught the math and formulas because it made no sense to me – I ended up memorizing steps soon forgotten once the tests were done. Differential equations comes to mind – still have no clue about them and what purpose they serve, but I got a B+ in that course.

      As a math supervisor, I observed/evaluated teachers, many who were retired engineers or military folks coming to teaching as ‘career switchers’. It was very apparent that they knew their math but could not help high school students learn math because they couldn’t help students see the relevance or connection. The lectures were not reaching the majority of the students. Students who did well tended to be those students who did well regardless. Most students, the ‘average’ and ‘below average’ needed other ways besides lecture and memorization to learn.

      Something to remember when comparing our students in the U.S. to Hong Kong, Singapore and the likes is that the students there are NOT average students. Students are tracked and tested and move on only if they are the top students – there is serious tracking in these countries, so only the brightest are being taught by these higher pay content experts. We do not have that here – all students are being taught and have a right to an education. All levels of students are in our classes, oftentimes all levels in a single class. It is necessary that there be multiple ways to teach because we have so much diversity in the students in our classroom. One way of teaching can never work.

      I disagree whole-heartedly with you when you say “an average student will learn immensely more from a real math teacher than they will from thousands pounds of math games, manipulatives, and the latest whiz bang techno flap doodle”. First of all, a person with a math education degree is a real math teacher. Secondly, what do you mean by learn more? Is a student who learns to solve equations from memorization of steps learned from a lecture better off than the student who can solve an equation learned through the use of manipulatives first (in order to understand it and be able to apply it later, out of context and when it’s not in a ‘formula’)?

      I think what needs to be remembered here is that everyone has a right to learn, and not everyone learns the same way or at the same rate. As teachers, it is our responsibility to do whatever it takes to help students learn. They may not all get to MIT, and that is okay….we want students to learn and function in the world, no matter what their position in the world, using the tools they need to get there. Math lectures may work for some, and that’s great – everyone is entitled to learn how they learn best. With that in mind, there is an enormous number of people out there who cannot learn from a lecture, especially a lecture on math. Personally, I think this idea of math lectures by ‘real mathematicians’ is only perpetuating the stereotype that math is only for ‘smart people’ and ‘math is boring’. My opinion is that a combination of whiz bang and lecture is a better approach. Honestly, the whiz bang is a lot more fun to teach and to learn and it makes math approachable and accessible to everyone.

      I appreciate your comments and I think Bill, you and I will just have to agree to disagree!

  5. I don’t hate math, and in some fields i’m interested in it a lot. I’m trying to do a Masters degree in IT, after having done a Prof Bachelor, and study now at a university in Belgium.

    The problem with my classes is simply what you described, Karen. Pointing out formulas, proofs all over the place like there’s no tomorrow. And the students well… they struggle behind a lot. That’s what makes it so fustrating. It’s more like self-study than it is a course. I have to figure out, page by page, what he meant in his course, because he explains it at god-speed. (the subject is discrete mathematics by the way, which wouldn’t be so hard if it wasn’t stuffed with 101 proofs that we need to understand)

    If you’ve got any tips making me love this, well then good luck, because it isn’t working. On the other hand I cannot say that math comes naturally to me, but this shouldn’t be an issue since i’m willing to put a lot of effort into it, but sometimes it becomes too much..

    1. Michael,

      Sorry to hear about your course, though not a surprise really. Suggestions for places to go for learning and loving…well..one thing is to explore some of our software, which is just fun. But…we also have built in tutorials and math content that might address some of the concepts you are learning but in a visual and dynamic way. So download for free and play with Sketchpad at http://www.keypress.com/GSP/download. And Fathom at ww.keypress.com/fathom. And Tinkerplots at ww.keypress.com/Tinkerplots. In all of these, go to the Help and play around with the movies, tutorials, and in Sketchpad there is the Learning Center with so much….content focused lessons built in.

      There are also lots of online resources that have videos and lessons. I will try to hunt around for some options and poste them.

  6. i was wondering if i could use your pictures for a project that i am creating to read for children please write back.

  7. I’ve ALWAYS hated Math from the time I was a child until presently, at the age of 48. I’m a part-time college student who is struggling in remedial math class and just failed a chapter test for the first time this semester and don’t expect to do any better when I retake the test on Monday. I have A.D.D. and PTSD and my brain is constantly taking in new information every millisecond and replaces the old information I just learned 15 minutes previously, a day previously, a week previously. I understand words and pictures and graphics. I’m a ‘spatial’ learner. Math beyond division barely makes any sense to me. Even with division, I struggle with decimals and place values. I’m sinking in a lot of student loan money into a college math class to learn math that should have been taught to me decades ago. But I would have never understood it back then, either. I hated math when I was a child, I hate math now, and will hate it forever.

    1. Kay,

      Wow – I am not quite sure how to respond to this. First, I am sorry for all your frustration regarding math and I am sorry that there hasn’t been a teacher or an experience that has been able to help reach the spatial learner in you. I would be intrigued if using something as visual as Sketchpad or TinkerPlots may have helped or may even help now, since both are very much a ‘spatial’ learning tool for math. Unfortunately, based on my own experience with college math classes (and high school for that matter), I think you have been experiencing much more of the traditional lecture based approach to instruction, which relies on memorizing facts and rules which, if I am understanding your ADD and PTSD situation, would be very difficult. I would love to somehow help if I could, but I can at least point you to some visual, free, activities that might help in your current situation – try these http://www.keycurriculum.com/resources/sketchpad-resources/free-activities – a college math class is probably focusing on many of the same skills and concepts found in the algebra, geometry, precalculus and calculus. Also, here: http://www.keycurriculum.com/resources/sketchpad-resources/free-activities and here: http://www.keycurriculum.com/resources/tinkerplots-resources/free-activities-and-resources All of these allow you to use pictures and graphics to help with mathematics.

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