You were probably taught to hate math

Photo courtesy of Tuna Ergan, Student Publications

The root cause of all academic anxiety I’ve ever had can probably be traced back to me failing a quiz on long division in the third grade.

It’s a pattern that I’ve experienced too many times to count — realizing I had no idea how to determine coordinates of the unit circle on a pop quiz, panicking while doing partial derivatives on a calculus exam. The setting changes, but the feeling remains the same.

It’s a feeling I know I’m not alone in experiencing. Very few people enjoy doing math, especially for those of us who were taught math in the U.S.’s education system. It is one of the most hated, most anxiety-inducing subjects in school.

With Tech’s focus as a STEM school, it is a shame that so many students here have had such a bad experience in one or more of their math classes.

Understanding and being able to use math skills — beyond just memorizing formulas, but also solving problems and modeling the world around you using numbers — is one of the building blocks of engineering and other STEM-related fields.

But the issues begin much earlier than when students first set foot on campus. Beginning in elementary and middle school, the U.S.’s math curriculum sets students up for failure. This failure can be seen especially clearly when compared to students’ math abilities in other countries.

The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a test measuring 15-year-old students’ performance in math, reading and science in 79 countries and education systems around the world. In 2018, the U.S.’s math performance was below the international average, ranked 36th of 79, while it ranked 13th and 18th in reading and science, respectively.

These education disparities in math follow students to college. According to a report by the workforce and education nonprofit Jobs for the Future, 60% of community college students enter college without necessary math skills and must take a remedial course before they can take college-level courses.

The current education system is failing students. To start, no one can agree on how to teach math. The math curriculum for decades focused on formulas, definitions and repetitive practice problems.

Attempts to innovate from this style of teaching, like the Common Core standards, haven’t been successful at effectively rethinking this curriculum.

Common Core, a set of standards created in 2009 and 2010, has become a controversial attempt to improve the U.S.’s education system and find a way to unify standards across the nation.

It attempts to explain the “why” of math to students, like by showing them how multiplication conceptually works.

However, it has been criticized for overcomplicating math by requiring multiple problem-solving techniques for what could be a simple computation.

While I think Common Core’s intentions were in the right place, it often fails in its implementation.

Many teachers have not been given enough training on how to teach the new standards. Poorly written textbooks dense with too much information for teachers to cover in limited time gives little help to students.

Standardized testing in the U.S. incentivizes inflexible approaches to teaching math. The information taught in these classes has few practical applications and students already have little interest in learning it.

Understanding the conceptual basis is important, but an elementary schooler probably doesn’t care to learn the complicated explanation.

However, higher-level math courses, like those taught in middle school and beyond, could be the perfect opportunity to move away from this memorization-based teaching and finally give more theoretical background for why math works the way it does.

Once you can do arithmetic and algebra, there is plenty of opportunity for using those basics to discover more.

Not only this, everyone understands math in a different way, so there should be more room for personalizing how to explain the content.

As surprising as it might be, math can be a flexible and creative subject.

In many high schools, students take algebra I in ninth grade, geometry in tenth grade and algebra II in eleventh grade. One of the most prominent researchers arguing to reform how math is taught in schools is Jo Boaler, a mathematics education professor at Stanford who calls this sequence of courses the “geometry sandwich.”

This so-called “geometry sandwich” in high school doesn’t leave much time for courses on topics like probability, statistics, computer programming and data analytics.

All of these are skills that could be integrated into math courses and create a more interesting class with practical applications.

Other countries, such as Estonia, have integrated this into their math courses with big success. In Estonia since 2012, students learn computer programming and related topics like logic starting in elementary school. Estonia, not coincidentally, scored much higher than the U.S. on the latest PISA.

Economist Steven Levitt, the author of “Freakonomics,” is a proponent of increasing “data fluency” education and decreasing the amount of time spent on algebra and geometry, specifically by reducing them into one class. This gives more time to learn how to analyze, visualize and present data.

Another point of contention is how math performance in elementary or middle school is used to separate students into different tracks of math. In sixth grade, my classmates and I were split into two levels of math courses based on our standardized testing scores.

In ninth grade, it became four possible tracks, until by my senior year of high school, it seemed like all my peers were graduating with vastly different understandings of math.

Supporters of these “gifted” math programs point out that it gives students who quickly learn math concepts more engagement and opportunities for achievement.

However, these programs worsen existing racial and socioeconomic disparities in access to quality math education. Students attending underfunded schools don’t have access to the same resources that wealthier schools have access to.

The pandemic has made the situation even worse, and teachers have ranked math as the subject they are most concerned students will fall behind in.

To return to the long-division quiz I failed in the third grade, and maybe the math quiz you failed at one point, there are neurological reasons for why our brains decided to stop working in a fit of panic.

To solve math problems, we use our working memory, but in times of stress, this can be impaired.

A timed test creates a sense of pressure, making it harder for students to concentrate, and this perpetuates the math anxiety.

Separating students into different math classes based on test performance creates a sense that some people are naturally good at math, while others aren’t, and this mindset can prevent students from succeeding and enjoying math.

One of my favorite things about majoring in industrial engineering is that I see the uses for things I learned in math classes years ago, and everything finally clicks.

It wasn’t until several years after learning how to integrate that I realized how integrals could be applied to the world around me.

I love understanding the proofs I’m being shown — not just understanding why a certain formula works — but understanding why it’s important and how these patterns of problem-solving can be reused.

As hard as it might to believe, math can be truly beautiful, and there is clearly a need to re-think math education.

Decreasing the emphasis on memorization is a start, and thinking up ways to effectively teach problem-solving skills and the “why” of math should be prioritized.

Eventually, we could all learn to love math.