Mathematics Is Now More Human Than We— And THAT Is What Should Frighten You

Sunil Singh
4 min readNov 24, 2019

Mainstream media has generally fumbled away being a platform for hopeful, positive, and truthful communication of mathematics education. The LA Times became the latest player in allowing anachronistic and harmful ideas of math education to percolate to the surface. This time, the person doing their best Chicken Little impersonation of the mathematical sky falling was Daniel Willingham. One more person who believes that having graduate degrees in any field is enough academic coin to chime in on the complex world of math education.

Let’s start with the title of the article. The words “scares” and “frighten” are in the article to convey shock and fear. Too bad this article didn’t come out during Halloween. The choice of those words is purposely provocative and probably chosen to illicit judgement and anger. What is true is that many teachers, especially elementary suffer from math anxiety. Notice the word “anxiety” is suspiciously absent. If that word was there, then there is at least recognition of perhaps a mental health association, inviting empathy from the reader.

Where do you think elementary teachers — or anyone else — gets their math anxiety from, Daniel Willingham? The same, broken system that these teachers work in. The same system that generally behaves in a political and economic infrastructure of performance and measurement. Try learning mathematics under those conditions. And try approaching the issue without the low-hanging-fruit deficit mindset. Maybe you should start here:

Do you know what percentage of Americans have suffered some form of math anxiety in their lives, Daniel Willingham? In the 2018 research article, Spotlight on Math Anxiety, the staggering number of 93 percent can be found in the Introduction of the article.

So, yes Daniel, mathematics is great source of pain for many people. But, your article is about exploiting that fact, siphoning off any empathy which should be found, and repackaging this anxiety as a desperate call to ensure that everyone is making the mathematical grade so we can, you know, get those, zzzzzzzzzzz, test scores up. I mean, that was your opening hand, test scores.

Part of me feels sorry for you, being under the impression that you can cash in your academic chops in psychology and think that your thoughts are not going to feel like anything but 1985.

I’m sorry. But, when was the last time you did a math problem. I could give you one. Maybe some irrelevant question about dividing fractions. Put 3 minutes on the clock. I mean isn’t that what that woefully cliche picture of mathematics in the article is aiming for — that mathematics is about computations and time. And of course, a seemingly distant and disinterested math teacher looking on…

That is not what mathematics looks like in the progressive and engaging classrooms of many schools. The mathematics is far more robust and colorful than the one conveyed in the article. Teachers are far more social, welcoming, and energetic in their interactions with students. The person in the picture, with that particular snapshot, looks exactly like the person you and the LA Times are trying to portray — nervous and anxious.

To treat elementary math teachers with such contempt and lack of understanding of the entire realm of mathematics only confirms that your line of thinking about the purpose of learning mathematics is asynchronous to the actual community of math educators and mathematicians.

The saddest part is that mathematics has been dehumanized by people like yourselves, only signing up for a kind of mathematics that supports economy and bureaucratic accountability. Mathematics is far, far more human than your sterile and hopeless picture. This understanding that you want to pin on us would only be something that a non-mathematician would champion for.

Mathematical thinking is what we math educators desire. The necessary precursor to that often unobtainable terminus of understanding — especially under a ticking clock watched by impatient and myopic individuals like yourself.

The fear you believe we should all subscribe to is a fossil from the previous century. Elementary teachers need to up their game. Middle school teachers need to up their game. High School teachers need to up their game.

Everyone should be seeking to improve their content and pedagogical knowledge. Being satisfied with either one is incompatible with how/why we need to build vibrant educational communities.

Your article is negligent and harmful. But, only underscores the real fear that should be gripping all of us. That mathematics, in its most precious and ancient state of awe and wonder, has become a shadow of itself in the anxiety-ridden classrooms that it now dwells in — dwells in as a villain.

You made no attempt to rehumanize mathematics and those that work tirelessly to bring back art and beauty to it. You signed off on an article that has been philosophically expired for a while now. If you worked in the math education community, you might have known that.

Here is a quote that might consider hanging up in your office before you opine on math education again.