We Don’t Give Permission For Children to Hate Mathematics

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Kids hating math isn’t new. Those kids who grow up to be adults who hate math isn’t new. As such, society having a historically abrasive relationship with mathematics isn’t new. I don’t even have the interest/patience to list those reasons. You can’t find them all over the internet. You can also find remedies to cure all these ailments. It’s a bloody strange situation. We are the deliverers of this pain, and at the same time we want to suggest strategies to make the pain go away. Its like kicking somebody in the shin and then offering them ice right after. Wouldn’t the first question one might ask is “Why did you kick me?”

It would be, but in the world of math education, that question is either ignored, or at least, answered partially, untruthfully.

The elephant in the room is that we don’t give students time and space to vocalize their fermented hatred of math. While it may not be our intention, we gaslight them.

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Adding context is important in math. Ham fisting it in to the point that it becomes a cartoon should signal that we, as math educators, take a time out. Isn’t 13 + 8 important enough? The better question is how would you add 13 + 8. This removes the spotlight from answer to the calculation. But, I am not here for that. We all know what good pedagogy looks like. I am also not here to share how beautiful mathematics really is. Hopefully, if you are reading this article, you already know that.

The problem is that the experiences for a vast majority of students is never really accepted that is proportional to us stopping the madness of inert, benign, inconsequential, boring, dull, and soulless mathematics.

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If you can’t stop it, at least be honest with your students. It’s my job and I have to do this. I probably used that sentence 179 times in my 20 year teaching career. I wasn’t sticking around to say it for the 180th time…

Manjul Bhargava won the Fields Medal in 2014, an award given out every four years. He also became the third youngest tenured professor at Princeton in 2003.

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Manjul Bhargava also hated math in school.

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Points 7) and 9) are probably closely related to 8).

There is this false assumption that those who are good at math, really, really good at math, must have loved it as a kid. In fact, it is probably quite the opposite. Those who feel their imagination and creativity are being stifled will quickly check out. Not just mentally, but physically as well.

Unfortunately, most kids don’t have a mother who is a gifted mathematician to show them the awe, wonder, and beauty of mathematics. They have to painfully endure some god awful ugly mathematics and keep their emotions/attitude under wraps.

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A few nights ago, I was helping my son with polynomials. It was around 10:30 at night. He yawned. Without even thinking, I told my son, Aidan, that maybe you should get to bed early tonight. You sound really tired. Without hesitation, he said this.

I should end this blog just here. I was relieved that he could share his honesty with me, knowing that I would not be insulted. Both my kids learned very early on that the mathematics in school is not the mathematics that I have tried to show.

That polynomial question shouldn’t even be allowed to exist. If mathematics was a product, everyone in marketing would have been fired yesterday. What is the point of that rectangle question? Are you asking me perimeter? Okay. Add up all the sides. Isn’t that it. Isn’t it over. What else would you like me to do with the perimeter of a rectangle? Fine. 2L + 2W. What? That’s not good enough. You want to give me arbitrary numbers to add. Well, now this more about adding numbers. If you wanted me to add 4 numbers, just give me 4 numbers. Sigh. That’s not good enough either. Rectangles, apparently, are so boring that we have to drag polynomials — a target themselves — into this dumpster fire. Throw enough negative signs in, and, you will get your wish, I will get the answer wrong.

If you like mathematics by the time you get to high school, it is most likely for the reason that you are getting good grades. Those polynomial questions with perimeter are just drunk integer questions.

Isn’t this what is really going on here? Creating contrived and ridiculous story boards to trip up kids. It’s questions like these that had a young Manjul Bhargava running to the hills and never wanting to return.

It’s wonderful that the truth of mathematics is begin permeate our classrooms. But, equally important, is for the truth of the negative student experiences to sit candidly and courageously in those same classrooms.

The other day in my 6th Grade Math Recess class at Dexter Learning, kids lost their minds when I told them there is something bigger than exponentiation — they even just loved that word.

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They don’t teach tetration in schools(the word isn’t even recognized)

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One day, some of those kids who hated math in schools are going have this meme be their story. We need to change that story. That starts by conceding that the mathematics we teach is unapologetically unattractive, and affirming that with our students. And, don’t give me the “well somethings just have to be done” song and dance. Give me 30 students at the start of high school, and all we do for 4 years is play chess, poker, and Yahtzee. I am pretty sure those students will be armed to the teeth with complex decision-making skills.

You know, the same ones you get from adding polynomials in a trapezoid…

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Handcuffs are missing in the picture

Author of Pi of Life: The Hidden Happiness of Mathematics and Co-Author of Math Recess: Playful Learning in the Age of Disruption. Speaker. Amplify and Mathigon

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