As a tutor of mathematics here at USD, it breaks my heart when a student says, “I can do math, I just don’t like it.”
I can’t necessarily blame them — I too felt that way once upon a time. The way our education system teaches math is sad.
For a country such as the United States to lead the world yet perform so poorly in a crucial skill like math demands pause.
The US ranks 41st in the world in math. That’s behind Vietnam, Latvia and the Slovak Republic.
Why is this?
Well, I don’t hold all the answers, but I think I have a hunch. I’m a math major in college, but I wasn’t always a math lover. In high school, my lowest grade was in algebra two. I dragged my feet through trigonometry, probability, geometry and algebra application for the next four years. It wasn’t until pre-calculus and calculus that my heart found room for math.
Normally, it’s the other way around: pre-calculus or calculus usually ends any love between a student and math.
I must give credit to my calculus professor. I tell people that she was an angel sent to purge our souls of poor math skills. And that she did. I don’t know exactly what it is she did, but all of sudden all these concepts from previous years were clicking, and calculus became my favorite math class (and still is), not to mention my highest math grade.
My situation is unique, which is a sad state of affairs. I don’t think it’s the teachers: their jobs are difficult enough as it is. Part of reason, I believe, is that we teach math as a bunch of rules to memorize.
The rules are there, but not arbitrarily. I don’t have “rules” in my head during a test. I think about the strings that connect one theorem to another. There’s logic, explanations behind the rules that, I’m sorry to say, we neglect in our education.
Of course, young students are going to prefer languages to math: those things are fun! Students can be creative in their words and express their unique thoughts. But that’s the problem: math isn’t just a bunch of rules made up by the algebra gods at random.
There’s creativity in math, something students rarely see. The beauty of math is that it’s all connected, and in more than one way. Most students cringe at the thought of a proof, but that’s what makes math so incredible. And it’s in the realm of proofs that creativity thrives.
The great mathematician G.H. Hardy emphasized that good mathematicians need to be creative in order to prove the most complex ideas in math. There’s a unique art to proving a theorem. The “rules” are just proofs, and proofs are tools that mathematicians apply to find new discoveries.
A biologist uses a microscope; an astronomer uses a telescope; a mathematician uses proofs. As I said, I don’t have all the answers. Bringing creativity back to mathematics would be a good start. Explaining how the rules come into being would be another one.
I hope the day will come when I hear “I like math, I just need some more help understanding it.”