Sunday, August 31, 2014

Why we hate math (And what Jimi Hendrix can change about it)

A queue of nervous looking students begins assembling by my cluttered corner desk in the staff room.  One by one, the line of learners grows until a brave girl in the front breaks the hush of anticipation. 

"Teacher may we see our marks from the past term?" 

 My least favorite task as a teacher is being the bearer of bad news, especially when it is on this scale.  Nearly every student in line was met at the end of the queue with number printed in red indicating that they had failed mathematics for the term.  With each revelation of their marks, I felt like I could hear a hammer pounding another nail into a coffin that was housing the students’ fading desires to care about learning this topic. 

"They're too lazy, they don't want to work!"

Exclaimed Mr. Zondi, my desk-mate and fellow teacher of grade 10 math.   I could see the frustration in his eyes as he finished marking yet another failing paper.  But, are they really too lazy? I've seen lazy students before and I find it hard to put these students in that category.  With a mandatory school day starting at 6:30am and lasting until 4:00pm, most of our students are out of bed well before 5:00am to make a lengthy journey in the dark to school either by foot or unreliable taxi.  The problem of poor math and science performance seems to be much deeper than just a lack of work ethic.

My students during exams
Why is it usually the case that when I meet someone new and they find out that I studied math (willingly) I am most frequently met with one of two reactions?  The first is like this :

“I hate math, it made my life miserable, you are a sick person.” 

The second, more congenial response is similar to this:

“Math huh?  Not my cup of tea, but we need more people like you” 

We know it's an important job, but we're sure glad that someone else is doing it.  Why is there such a negative attitude towards mathematics?  Why is it that the subject that describes literally every modern and technological wonder of our age is thrown aside and dismissed as “boring.” Students always ask, “When will I ever use this in my life?”  We’ve made the mistake as educators by trying to supply an answer to the question without showing them why they should appreciate mathematics for the marvel that it is. We fall into the trap of using the bribing system to teach math:

  “Hey kids! If you learn math you can become (fill in the blank with an awesome job like Doctor or Astronaut)”

Or worse we threaten them,

You best understand these triangle congruencies or you won’t graduate and you’ll live with your parents for the rest of your life!”

Neither method works because the education is presented as merely a means to an end.  It seems we spend too much time forcing students to learn robotic calculations without ever giving them a chance to generate a sense of wonder for the subject and its unrivaled beauty.  Imagine if we did this in any other aspect of education.  What if in English class we never read literature, but only studied grammar.  I’ve never met anyone who studied English because they love grammar and can’t get enough of admiring sentences written in the present perfect continuous tense.  Or what if instead of playing the game of basketball, high schools had students try out for the defensive shuffling practice group.

In a sense that is what we do with math.  We hand students a bunch of rules and formulas delivered in wordy, hard to follow text books and expect them to be excited about what they are learning (and score well on tests too!).   We rarely allow time in class for the attractiveness of the mysterious results found in mathematics to capture the curiosity of our students.  Teachers around the world have a stringent itinerary full of the basic skills they must present, leaving no room for fostering an admiration for math or creating a sense of awe concerning it.     

This is why we hate math.   

(I know hate is a strong word but I can’t think of a more appropriate use of it)  It’s been stripped down to nothing more than a mechanical process that you must learn to solve lifeless problems.  

Why do I not hate math? 

Because I am fascinated by studying the work of brilliant people throughout the ages who have encountered adversity in the study of numbers which took them on a mental (and often even spiritual) journey. I love to learn about the methods of people who were gifted with the ability to think outside the proverbial box to bring a brand new world of enlightenment and understanding to humanity.  What if we taught math with the goal of eliciting the type of response it deserves in a student? 

 One of the students named S'duduzo who I am teaching guitar to at school is left handed. When I found out he that he was a south paw I joked with him that he will be the next Jimi Hendrix someday.  S'duduzo looked at me puzzled because he had never heard of Hendrix before so I brought my computer over to show him a clip. His eyes lit up, not just because of the music he was hearing but because of what he saw.  

"His guitar is upside down, he took a right handed guitar and made it a left handed guitar!  He thinks outside the box, I am inspired!"

That reaction is exactly what we are missing in math education.  It's only once we can produce this kind of enthusiasm from students concerning math that we can start to see anything change in test results. Until we can show students how patterns and wonders are discovered in numbers and inspire them to think like the big names of mathematics past, we will be fighting an ugly losing battle. 


  1. Hey Mike, are you on Instagram? We (Fulbright) have launched one and want to post a photo of you we received from the embassy. If you have a handle, can you email it to us? Also, you can find us @the_fulbright_program and by using #Fulbright when tagging posts! We can link to your blog as well if you don't have Instagram. Thanks! -BJ from Fulbright Outreach!