Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
May 23 2011

Just can’t do math

“Wow, that must be a hard subject to teach, since so many people just can’t do math and won’t ever be able to.”

That’s a quote from my hairdresser today. She went on to talk about how numbers just don’t work in some people’s heads, and from a young age you either can do math or you can’t. She declared herself one of the people who has never been good at the subject, and clearly thought it was useless for me to try with most of my kids.

Have you ever heard an adult announce proudly that they suck at reading and literacy just isn’t for them? I haven’t… because that would be wildly socially unacceptable. Yet there’s nothing strange about adults, even highly successful ones, laughing off their struggles with math. What is that? Where does it come from?

I’m going to disagree with the whole “math just isn’t for me” thing. I’m very convinced that anyone can be at least decent at math, given a strong enough education from an early enough age. I think problems come when families don’t develop early number sense, and they come when teachers don’t teach well enough. (I’m going to leave it at that, since I’m not qualified to determine what “teaching well enough” actually entails.) My hairdresser told me she did poorly because she “was never good at remembering all those formulas” which speaks volumes to the type of education she received. Mathematics is not just memorizing formulas, and I’m going to venture that she missed out on many of the best parts of math if that’s where she sees her failure.

There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that something is wrong with math education in our country. My cousin told me yesterday that her university just put every one of its math professors on probation, because not enough kids were doing well in their classes. Is that the professors’ faults? Or does that mean the kids aren’t coming in prepared for college mathematics? (Honest question. Maybe both?) How do we fix it? How do we make math accessible enough that kids don’t give up on themselves and shut down to a subject that they “just can’t do” forever?

This bothers me. It also makes me happy that people like Ms. Math exist to study math education and teach us how to do it right. Let’s make the Math Teacher Summit happen. (Anybody want to fund it? :-) )

4 Responses

  1. I feel like I hear “I can’t do math” all day, every day. It is hard teaching a subject most students hate, but it is SO rewarding when you finally get a student to truly understand that they can do math. I think we’re lucky to get to be the teachers that do that…

  2. G

    I used to be one of those “I suck at math” people, until just very recently. I realized that my self-imposed suckiness began when I was traumatized into despising math by my 6th grade math teacher (a woman who had no business being in a classroom). Fast forward to present day: I love math. I love teaching math. There, I said it. People who know me from way back when would be shocked to hear me say that. My parents would keel over if they heard me say that. But it’s true. My kids are kicking butt in math…serious butt…and I know I am part of the reason they’re doing so. My job in 2nd grade is to make sure the kids have a solid foundation for the grades to come, including knowing their multiplication facts from 0 – 12. I hope I served them well.

  3. I usually hate CNN, but that’s a story for another day:

  4. Lucas

    I seem to hear daily through the media from adults who announce proudly that they suck at reading and literacy just isn’t for them.

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