Guest Post: The Math Stigma

This week’s post comes from Andrew Petersen, who graduated with a BS in theoretical physics from Weber State University. He recently accepted a post at a company doing data analysis, making this his last guest post as an AcerPlacer instructor.

Struggling with the attention needed to do well in math in my elementary school, my friend nudges me, “Uuugh – I suck at math, want to go ride bikes?” I agree, knowing that I will never get anywhere with math, and riding bikes sounds immensely more entertaining. As children we develop into a social construct already in place, slowly built upon by thousands of generations of humans in our cultures. This social boundary subconsciously forces us to think and do certain things to fall within the norm. One of those things is that math, as a subject learned by a lot of people, is hard.

From birth and within our social boundaries, we are told that math is hard by our peers, mentors, and often times our parents. Those we look up to have labelled mathematics as the F-chord of our academics, and we probably aren’t good at it. After being told this, when attempting to learn math, we expect it to be difficult – we know it’s challenging – it seems like an impassible hurdle. This thought process and structure, I think, is entirely ironic. The only reason some people are inherently good at math, or anything for that matter, is due to their development and environment when growing up. This tells me that how we think of and structure things (math, baseball, reading…) is completely moldable. Then I also think – “Isn’t that how we learn…everything?”

Often I thought being good at math was due to a higher intelligence and a crafty creativity that I simply didn’t have. After years of studying and graduating university, I finally have the realization that an inherent intelligence was not the key – persistence and good habits were. A lack of this realization manifests into students often misdirecting their blame and anger. Every once in awhile I will have a student who struggles through the whole class even while working hard, retakes the class, then repeats. That student then begins to blame the institution – “My instructor was at fault, the math at my school sucks.” Yet this is misdirected anger, because those students don’t lack the intelligence, they lack the habits when writing and learning mathematics. They don’t work problems top to bottom, they skip steps, and they just get lazy. It’s understandable, all of us are lazy at some point, but this is the skill that needs to change.

We all learn differently, and many times while sitting in class I have struggled to keep up with my notes. For a long while I would finish writing out my thoughts, then move on with what the instructor was at next – but I am behind at that point, and continue that progression for the rest of the class. In most classes, no matter the subject, the instructor must get through a set amount of material. Due to time constraints, that often means they must teach faster than the students are comfortable with. As a student, I would blame the professor, until I realized this was misguided. It took years to discover that I need to listen, regardless of what I get written down. It is far more important to absorb what the instructor is saying through my senses, then fill in the rest later.

To break this stigma, we need to instill a social construct around our children that math is like any other subject, we just must learn how to learn. First though, we must do this to ourselves, and redefine how we think of mathematics in the first place – it does not take a especially smart person to learn math, it takes persistence and good habits.

Editor’s Note: An F-chord is a particularly difficult chord to play on a guitar.

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