Everyone Has Failed At Math: Education Spins A Different Fable

Sunil Singh
4 min readFeb 22, 2024
Crumpled paper is the heart and soul of Mathematics

Math education lives in a bubble. A land where somehow everyone is an expert at mathematics, because the domain and purpose of learning mathematics has come down to buzzwords — I mean buzzkill words — like proficiency and fluency. And, the fluency definition is outdated.

Proficiency is a code word to appease the system that is built on transactional learning and maniacal testing. Worse, it is also rooted in being “proficient” in mathematics that while fundamental, isn’t terribly interesting.

That’s the good news.

The bad news, math education has become a cottage industry where nobody sucks at math or should suck at math.

Spoiler alert: Well, I suck at math! And, I have been professing it for a while.

I am a novice. I am only an expert if I am enthusiastic about getting it wrong. As such, I can never wear the crown — thank you, universe — of being an edu-celebrity that peddles in certainty, solutions, tips, tricks, etc 100% of the time. That seems like an exhausting and claustrophobic space to exist.

It’s also bullshit. Math doesn’t exist there. It never has.

Every human being has been the SUN in the ANTARES-size universe of Mathematics

When someone tells me that I must “love” math and be “good” at it. I laugh for many reasons. One, I am foodie, but I sure as hell don’t like every kind of food. Ask me to teach trig transformations and plotting them and I will call in sick. To me, that is the “durian” of mathematics.

And, if you that is your jam, that’s great. Creating this monolith of math educators who teach the same way with the same content is dangerous — that’s how cults are born. Math education has never been impervious to them. Contrary. They have welcomed them — finding solutions to problems they do not really know.

Why are we all messaging the same falsehoods about mathematics — that everything can be understood(quickly I might add), that all math is equally wonderful and appetizing, etc.

Please, stop. This is all unintended marketing/packaging of mathematics so it can be sold as a tidy, unified commodity.

Mathematics is beautifully messy. That’s not my opinion. That’s its history. Mathematics is about getting lost. That’s not my opinion. That’s its history.

Check out this excerpt for Laura Valenti’s blog, The Beauty of Being Lost.

I know I’d lose interest. I actually did. I quit teaching in 2013.

The slow, thematic failure of mathematics is the script that math education has conveniently ignored, writing one instead that is like is condensed into a sitcom that resolves itself after every episode. There aren’t even cliffhangers. It’s not even a good sitcom, and it should have got cancelled after a few seasons of trying to spin fractions, decimals, contrived word problems as rich viewing. I guess we all have forgotten the unchecked legacy of math boredom, alienation, anxiety, and trauma that still exists.

Joanie Loves Chachi…but probably Hates Math

Mathematics in school has been a historically boring and toxic experience for so many students — and teachers. Until we can look squarely at the problem — poor content(let me know when number theory, graph theory, game theory, math history, etc becomes fully alive) — we are doomed to keep throwing new paint on old walls.

Same thing applies to mathematics — many kids are doing the wrong mathematics. Even the kids who love mathematics might be doing the wrong mathematics(they probably love it because they do well on tests).

Steer the math education ship towards richer content, or else its going to hit the iceberg of overbaked and overvalued pedagogy.