Slate.com recently published this great article on the terrible state of math education in this country. It’s a critique of a New York Times article that suggests we can improve math grades by trying to convince students it is not a boring subject, because it is used in other disciplines such as computer programming and robotics. Slate argues that, sorry guys, one has to learn the boring concepts before leaping into other sciences that rely heavily on their understanding.
This got me to thinking that I don’t know many people who are good at math. My husband is even worse at math than me, and that’s saying something (though I don’t think he’d agree with this assessment.) Here’s the thing though – once upon a time, I was not so bad at math. Once upon a time, I had the highest grade in my class. And no, I don’t mean arithmetic. I mean my tenth grade algebra/trigonometry class. That was the most advanced class one could take in the tenth grade at my (admittedly rather lousy) school. I knew I was doing well and as such, I really liked the class. However having come from ninth grade geometry where I had to switch classrooms/teachers just to keep from failing, I was very surprised.
You know what else I was really good at? Mole equations in chemistry. Overall I was rubbish in chemistry (no, I won’t be making meth anytime soon), but I remember the mole test we took because it was the only test I aced in that class. 100%
By the time I hit pre-calculus in 11th grade, I hated math again. I was struggling, bored and frustrated with the teacher. When it came time to pick senior electives, of which calculus was one (and not required), I dropped math altogether.
So what the hell happened? Well, my algebra teacher was really good. She taught the way I wanted to be taught, which was to explain the derivation of formulas. All of my other teachers in other math classes just showed how to work an example problem, and from that you were supposed to glean how to do all the problems, even though, like snowflakes, no two problems were the same. This inferior (as I see it) method of teaching completely surrounds my identity of being bad at math. If only I’d had access to better teachers, and if only someone along the way would have explained algebra’s place in the real world, I might not be the so-bad-at-math-it’s-comical cliché you see today.
I’m not too worried about it now. I’ve made my life choices and they involve minimal mathematics. The biggest calculation I do regularly is how much to tip at a restaurant. However, when presented with the occasional real world equation, I struggle way more than I should. More often than not, I fail, and have to turn to the internet for the answer. That is a pity, and should be rectified immediately for the upcoming generation of math students.
From the Slate article: “What is needed in mathematics education is not a new faux trend (“a fundamentally different approach”) but rather renewed attention to teaching teachers the basics well, so that they can then pass them on to students.”
What do you think? Were you good at math? Bad at math? Does math factor into your everyday life? What will happen when your kids need help with their more advanced math homework?