If you are a math teacher, you have heard “I hate math” from students, parents, friends….it is often the first thing someone says when you tell them you teach math for a living. Our traditional way of teaching mathematics, through memorization of steps and skills without context or connection, is partly to blame for this. And, unfortunately, still the prevalent way of teaching today, despite research and standards that encourage and promote thinking, questioning, and multiple approaches. It’s discouraging, it’s depressing, and it’s a disservice to students. No one should “hate math”, and when you hear it from a child as young as 6 (see the video below), it’s even more depressing, because this is someone who hasn’t even really begun to know anything about math and yet they already hate it. Probably because they are being forced to do timed drills, or worksheets (as a friend recently shared with me about their child’s math class).
I just watched this great TEDx talk I found by Dan Finkel, where he talks about bringing joy to mathematics learning. He begins with discussing how the fear and hatred of math permeates life, and can contribute to poor decisions and immediate trust in deceiving statistics; “When we are not comfortable with math, we don’t question the authority of numbers” (Dan Finkel, TEDxRainier, The Joy of Math). He points out that the ordinary math class begins with answers – with little opportunity for questioning or creativity. We give students the steps to skills (i.e. steps to multiply, divide, find x, etc.) and our “questions” have set answers, and once skills are grasped, we move on. “There is no room to doubt, or imagine, or refuse…so there’s no real thinking here”. Sound familiar? Sound like a topics needed to master for a standardized tests?
Instead, we need to give students a question and make it authentic. (His example with the numbers 1-20 and the colors is great, so be sure to watch that). I’ve written about this previously – making math relevant, authentic, and focus on questioning (Real-world Math Applications vs. “Naked” Math; Math Questioning to Support Mathematical Practices). Finkel’s point is that math and the beauty of math can be found by asking questions. “Thinking happens only when we have time to struggle”. Time is so important – it’s the only way to teach students to be ‘tenacious’ and to persevere. So those of you out there still stuck in this obsession with ‘timed’ skills and rote memorization, pay attention to this video and what Finkel is saying. There are many others saying the same thing (i.e. Jo Boaler from Stanford), but Dan’s message is well worth listening to. He has so many great quotes, I could go on and on writing them in this post, but probably better if you listen yourself and take away from it that which speaks to you. For me, I am just more committed to the message that math should be about thinking, connections, questioning and providing students the opportunity and time to really explore, question and pursue authentic problems to spark their creativity. Let’s please stop the “I hate math” mantra and instead try to create joy and wonder about math so that instead we hear “Wow, look what I learned about math today!”