• Wed, Dec 4 - 9:00 am ET

I’m Trying To Get Behind The Math Cheerleading Movement But It’s Still Math

shutterstock_165036311There have been a flurry of articles in the NY Times, the Atlantic, and Business Insider coming at parents from every angle to encourage our children to enjoy math.  This is an important cause, given that in international rankings, the U.S. ranks 26th out of the 34 OECD countries in math skills.  The future will depend on careers in science and engineering and we’re told math is invaluable to the growth of these sectors.  Those sound like great reasons to champion my kids and their interest in math.  But, I don’t know, it’s still math.  It’s hard to get excited about.

I have never said “I’m not a math person” or “I’m bad at math,” which is (apparently) the worst thing you can model for your kids.  However it has always been clear that my strengths in school — and most certainly my interests in life — revolve around more creative endeavors such as writing.  And arguing (“debating” if you want to spin it into a positive).  So it’s hard for me to be enthusiastic about math and numbers, when I love words so much.  Still, since becoming a mother I’ve resolved to foster my kids’ math skills.  I had my son in “cooking” classes as a toddler, not only as an opportunity to try new foods, but because measuring is a basic introduction to math concepts.  I really am trying, even if it doesn’t come naturally to whoop it up over the subject.

What I hope to impart on my children is that “math” is a term that covers a huge range of topics.  Everyone needs to understand basic arithmetic.  Truthfully, I do most of my math when shopping and trying to calculate exactly how much a “20% off sale” is going to save me.  But beyond the practical uses, in high school I really enjoyed algebra.  I loved the formulas and the search for the one singular answer of x.  Geometry?  I shudder just thinking about it.  I am terrible at drawing and could barely sketch the shapes we were learning about, let alone understand anything substantive about them.  It’s just like my favorite subject, English.  Poetry is part of English yet when I look at those sparse words on a page, they do absolutely nothing for me.  I’ve never been a “poetry person.”  Doing poorly in one area of math, doesn’t mean you are doomed when it comes to the entire subject.

Math teacher Elizabeth Cleland would let me off the hook for not rallying the same enthusiasm for reading The Gruffalo as I do math homework.  The way she sees it, it’s her job to make the kids love math and develop their skills with perseverance and encouragement.  But she urges parents not to ruin it.

My students’ parents also believe in this fallacy [that there are "math people" and "nonmath people"] and sometimes, perpetuate an anti-math attitude.  They don’t use math at work, can’t help their students with their math homework, and are convinced themselves that they’re “not math people.” Furthermore, because these adults have survived without math, they tell their children that math isn’t necessary in the workplace. These adults have made their choices. They chose or were forced into careers where math wasn’t required and so they convince their children that only the “math people” will ever get anything out of a comprehensive mathematics education. Our job as role models is to give our students the freedom to make their own choices, including lucrative choices in fields that require math.  In my education courses, we were always told that modeling is more powerful than teaching.  Adults are modeling this self-defeatist attitude.

The most important is to keep a positive attitude about it and not let our own limitations dictate our children’s abilities.  That’s probably good advice for parenting in general.

(photo: alphaspirit/Shutterstock)

You can reach this post's author, Carinn Jade, on twitter.
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  • Blueathena623

    There is beauty and poetry in math. You can look at the great works of art and find the ratios and note the shapes and how we find some images pleasing and some not. I think Fibonacci’s sequence to be really cool and it gives me a little chill when you realize how often you find it in nature.
    IF parents know enough to do it, you can find math in tons of fun situations. How do you know we aren’t going to die on this roller coaster? Math. How do I learn to be a pool shark? Math. How do I win at Jenga? Math. And that’s not even including all of the regular daily uses.

    • Blueathena623

      Sorry, forgot to add — there is math in the arts as well. Music is a ton of math. You can use math in writing — calculate your word frequency usages to see if you can improve, etc. or just have fun and figure out your writing style (most used words, average number of syllables, etc.)

    • pixie

      Agreed, even super simple music theory is all based on basic math. I remember trying to teach one of my friends in high school preliminary theory (in grade 11 or 12) and remember how frustrated I got that what should have been super simple, my friend was struggling. I didn’t let my frustration show, she was trying *really* hard, but I had to go over really simple math with her, pretty much grouping things in threes or fours to figure out time signatures.

    • Carinn Jade

      I love you. Can you come hang with my kids? At the very least, the national math campaign needs you on their team.

    • Blueathena623

      Awe, thanks. I’m not an un-schooler by any means, but I think the best way to champion math is in an interdisciplinary way. Sometimes schools do crossovers in the sciences (knowing chemistry is awesome in order to understand biology) and the humanities overlap a lot, and sometimes even the sciences and the humanities, like having to write research papers on famous scientists. But math stays in its own little corner despite the fact that math is EVERYWHERE! And its like every real-world example of math gets shunted into another subject. People say “I never use math in my day to day.” Ever look at the side of a cereal box? Look at how many calories per serving? That’s math, but people don’t think of it as math, its nutrition.

    • Mystik Spiral

      I have my Bachelor’s in Math, and I wrote a term paper on the Fibonacci Sequence for my History of Math class. It is fascinating.

    • EmmaFromÉire

      God bless you, sometimes I sit in on my best friend’s classes (3rd year of a four year maths degree) and it goes waaaay over my head, so honestly my utmost respect goes to all graduates of mathematics!

    • Mystik Spiral

      Thank you! I wish I could say that I remembered most of what I studied, but alas… college was a long time ago and I’ve never found much use for Abstract Geometry in my adult life. I wish I’d gone into a STEM career, but I ended up in Accounting. Sigh.

  • Muggle

    Finally, someone knows how I feel about math. Anything more than the basics terrifies me, but I feel like a huge hypocrite for realizing kids (and girls in particular) need better STEM education and to remove the mystery and fear surrounding it.

  • pixie

    Math in school mostly bored me. Not because I was bad at it, I was actually quite good at it, but my teachers just weren’t inspiring. They didn’t offer challenges for students who would have wanted to try more difficult problems and rarely helped students struggling to keep up with the regular coursework. I stopped taking math after grade 11 because it wasn’t required in grade 12.
    Now that I’m older, I appreciate and wish I had a better understanding of math. Not having used more than super basic math since I finished grade 11, seeing complex formulas frightens me. I think they’re neat and I want to understand, but that doesn’t change my quasi-fear of complex math equations. Especially when I have to read music theory/analysis journal articles where the theorists/analysts come up with these crazy formulas to prove whatever it is they’re writing about.

  • waffre

    Math can be exciting, you just have to stop thinking of it the way you are used to, which is what this campaign is all about! Go watch the movie “Pi” which is a thriller… about math. It sounds weird, I know, but you won’t regret it.

    • EmmaFromÉire

      I’d never heard of that film before, i’ll definitely be looking it up!

    • elle

      Yes Pi is awesome. Oh Aronofsky what goes on in your head?

  • brebay

    God, I hated math and still do. Never use it, and I make good money. That’s what calculators are for. I went into a field that requires very little math, nothing that can’t be done on a pocket calculator. Some people just ARE NOT good at math. Just like many people can’t put a sentence together and write like they’re texting. True, there is a need for STEM professionals, but if you’re good at other things, you’ll find a way to make money doing that.

    • Mystik Spiral

      Calculators are for arithmetic, not mathematics. I get that not everyone loves math and that you don’t need to use it to have a good career, but don’t denigrate it with such an ignorant statement.

    • brebay

      My profession gets denigrated more than most, so I’m not losing sleep over denigrating math, arithmetic, whatever.

  • EmmaFromÉire

    I love maths, it was probably my favourite class in school. In mine university, the EMS subjects are dominated by women, with a graduation ratio of 60:40 in terms of women:men. I think the problem is that people don’t even realise how much basic stuff they use every single day.

    I hope I don’t get crucified for this opinion, but i’m throwing it out there anyway- your current high school programmes don’t even teach a particularly high standard of maths. There are a lot of American students in my course in college, and they struggled through our ‘Intro to Maths’ classes in our first year.

    I spent a lot of time trying to tutor my friends outside of class so they could scrape a passing grade. This was stuff I had been taught for years, the college class was designed to be a refresher for us,and even students who don’t take honours level maths classes here in Ireland have to know how to do basic questions in that area, so I was pretty surprised when there were students who had never encountered a differential or integral equation in their lives.

    As it stands, high school graduates aren’t on par with international graduates, such as Irish, British or Chinese kids, in maths. I know there’s a huuuuuge number of people who dislike your current curriculum (common core? Someone throw me a bone here cos i’m still baffled over NCLB) so maybe it really does need changing up.

    • pixie

      I think it depends on the teachers. I know teachers in the US don’t get paid very well and while some of them really try to get their students enthused about subjects like math, not nearly enough do. It’s the same here in Canada. Our teachers are paid a bit better than their American counterparts, but I still remember having a long string of teachers who just didn’t care anymore. I had great teachers, don’t get me wrong, but those were fewer than ideal.
      I don’t know what the teachers are like over in the UK/Ireland, though. They could be more involved, or the education system could just expect more from a younger age.
      I also have a friend from my undergrad who studied math and is actually teaching in London now and she seems to be doing a good job. I think she’s teaching 10 year olds, though.

    • Blueathena623

      Calculus isn’t required in the U.S. in order to graduate.
      Here is one reason we are holding back on higher level maths — harder to test for using standardized testing. As far as I know, most of our national achievement testing metrics are still mostly, if not totally, scantron. There may be some essay components that have to be hand-graded, but a lot is “fill in the bubble”. But with high level math, at least with every teacher I ever had, if you show all of the steps and get 99% of the steps right but still get the wrong answer because you did one step wrong, you still get partial credit. But you can’t do that on a scantron unless you have a ton of people hand-grading math problems. And if you can’t test for it easily, why teach it?

    • EmmaFromÉire

      That is so, so depressing. It’s a wonder anyone achieves anything if nothing but scantron is used. Gives you no indication if you even have the method right! Absolutely no state level exams are scantron here, everything is hand marked. I know that because we have a teeny tiny population compared to you that’s possible, but there must be some happy medium!

    • Paul White

      Also, calculus causes brains that aren’t prepared to melt. It’s dangerous.

  • esuzanne

    Fractals and strange attractors!

  • SusannahJoy

    I like math. I like the order and the steps to solving the problem that then has a “right” answer. So many things in life are in shades of grey, but most math is pretty black and white. It’s not up to interpretation like poetry or art. I actually kind hate poetry. I’m much happier with an algebra book than a book of poems!

  • SarahJesness

    I never tried doing multi-digit math in my head until a video game prompted me to do it. (the game didn’t have health meters on the enemies, but I had to do these challenges where you’re supposed to finish off the enemy with a certain attack, which means calculating how much base health the enemy has, and how much it’s down to after damage) I was too lazy to get a calculator, just as well, using one would’ve take up more time, so I decided to see if I could do head-math. Turns out I totally could and now I use it for other junk like calculating grocery store prices and figuring out how much a better deal it is to buy in bulk and junk.

    Too bad I still have issue with complicated math. I just need someone to explain it to me slowly and carefully, a lot, and I need a lot of practice, but once it clicks I have no problem.