In poll after poll, when people are asked what are the most difficult subjects to learn in school, math tops the list. The reasons that are offered are myriad, and according to Kevin Anderton, writing for Forbes, most are misconceptions.
First, lets deal with one that is not a misconception, but an actual learning disability. Its name that may be almost as off-putting as studying math: dyscalculia. It is a brain-related condition analogous to dyslexia and often associated with ADHD. Dyscalculia may affect five percent of the population and can be diagnosed with proper testing.
On to the misconceptions.
- Math is harder to learn than other subjects.
Is this true or has math gotten a bum rap? A poor foundation is a common culprit. Many math concepts and skills are sequential. A student who cannot add may have trouble subtracting. One who cannot multiply will have trouble finding LCDs and GCMs, which will lead to further problems when starting Algebra. So a student falls behind, which exacerbates the problem. Schools will pass you to the next higher level even if your grade is as low as a “D.” But that “D” speaks to lots of math unlearned. About 40%. If that “D” leads to another then you move along knowing only 60% of 60% of what you should know. About one-third.
- Too much memorization.
Yeah, there’s a lot. Calculators can lighten the load, but there are situations in which calculator use is restricted. But remember that memorization is a part of almost every subject you learn. You may not regard it as onerous if it’s a subject you enjoy, but English, history, foreign languages and the sciences all require lots of memorization.
- Math does not apply to real life.
Keith Devlin, writing for the Mathematical Association of America, has this to say about it: “What is taught is not, in itself, of any significance. The chances of anyone who finds they need to make use of mathematics at some point in their life … is close to zero. In fact, by the time a student today graduates from university, the mathematics they may find themselves having to use may well have not been developed when they were at school.
“Second, what is crucial to effective math learning is … the ability to think fluidly and creatively, adapting definitions and techniques already mastered … on similar problems in the past, and combining known approaches to a novel situation.”
- Math is a natural ability. Either you have it or you don’t.
No, nein, nyet, nah. According to Child Development, good study habits and hard work conquer all. Bad habits and false beliefs only make the problem worse. The student who attributes a math mistake to low ability only sets in motion a chain of negative motivation that enforces the belief that one should not bother to try. The Forbes study referenced above found that over 25 percent of math students believed this fallacy.
- It’s either right or wrong; there’s no room for error.
In math, it’s the student’s job to come up with an answer, but it doesn’t need to be that way. According to Stanford math professor Jo Boaler, it’s one reason why the U.S. is falling behind the rest of the world in math education. Citing current neuroscience research, she says, “Your brain grows when you make a mistake, even if you’re not aware of it, because it’s a time when your brain is struggling.” By shifting the focus from getting the right answer to things like visualizing math and discussing solution strategies, students with math disabilities are able to do math more like students who don’t have difficulties. The shift in focus engages more and different brain pathways, which enhances learning.
These are only a few of the misconceptions that can hinder math performance. Parents and teachers can help or hinder. Parents may unintentionally pass their own negative attitudes or inaccurate assumptions on to their children. When parents fall short of being able to help their children with their math homework, they may convey negative messages, such as “well, math is hard,” or “I was never that good at math myself.” A set-up for future failure. Teachers and schools that put priorities on test scores rather than on learning send the wrong message, too, but that’s a discussion for another day.