I Am Not Good At Math And You Shouldn’t Be Either. (2023)

I Am Not Good At Math And You Shouldn’t Be Either. (1)

Okay. The title of this article sounds a bit provocative. It is hard to escape that notion. But, really, it’s not. To be “good at math” is a direct reference to the K to 12 math curriculum. I am sure many of you did well in the arts, languages, and sciences, but I am also pretty sure you don’t think you automatically qualify as an artist, writer, or scientist based on just mastery of high school exploration of those subjects. Then why do we shrink the expansive universe of mathematics into a bloody speck and proclaim “victory” for tackling such a tiny part of the mathematical trail?

Part of the reason is that something like “student success” is just as much as a marketing term in education as it is an attempt to have the best intentions for children learning mathematics. This goal, while earnest at bottom, is a muddied intersection of anachronistic values and drastically needed pedagogical updates.

But, I have no interest in wading into that murky pool of education.

First of all, I don’t like the word “success”. It seems a tad commercial, tied to the never ending game of material possession and wealth. But, more than that, it just creates such a shallow and deceptive goal for learning mathematics — to be good at it. Well, how does one show that? By getting good grades of course. How does one get grades? By doing well on timed assignments, quizzes, and tests of course. How does one do well on that? Not sure, but maybe you should ask someone who cares.

I swear, if I hear one more adult come up to me and mention something to the effect that “your kids must be good at math”(automatically inferring that I am based on how much I talk about math), I think I am going to scream…

Getting our students to be good in this false domain of mathematics — even the championed practicality is toothless in a world that operates as a complicated game of commerce, risk assessment, and house edge — automatically creates and supports a culture of every educator taking this same narrow trespass. Getting good becomes etched in the consciousness of math education.

So much volume is taken up by this, that there is hardly any room for anything else. Little time for math history. Little time for learning new content — that desire is collectively quashed by trying to master a tired Canon of 20th century thinking in math education. Little time to focus on equity issues.

Little time for the most important idea of learning mathematics: knowing and wanting to know your students.

All the energy of math education becomes invested in a proven model of, quite ironically, failure. This anxious and exhaustive focus on getting good has always led to unchecked failure. But, don’t ask me. Ask the millions of kids who have had such negative experiences of being weighed down by routines, practice, and testing. In 2018 research article, Spotlight on Math Anxiety, it was found that 93% of people survey from the US had experienced some form of math anxiety.

70% of kids quit sports by the age of 13 because of the above reasons, which themselves displace play and fun in learning.

By the way, many of the kids who quit sports are really good. Let that parallel sink in for a bit…

I Am Not Good At Math And You Shouldn’t Be Either. (2)

But, sports, at least is trying. My son plays competitive soccer. There is no score keeping until the age of 13. Score keeping in mathematics starts in most schools around the age of 6, and only gets ramped up in the hormonal years. Dry math + constant testing. What could possibly go wrong. Well, to nobody’s surprise, my son quit soccer this past summer.

You want to measure success? I will tell you how you should measure success. Well, not me. Someone far more qualified to discuss things in broader strokes.

I Am Not Good At Math And You Shouldn’t Be Either. (3)

While this might be extreme, and I am not pretending that it isn’t, math education would be better served with creating a curriculum and goals that are carved out this classic Sir Winston Churchill quote. Most of the math problems that I like to do are the ones that push my own ability — which again, is very small — to the brink. Where I either eek out an answer with every available shard of math skills I have or I fall short. I fail. My enthusiasm? Still high as a kite. I love falling short.

Falling short is the well where we find curiosity and resilience.

However, in order for students to arrive safely at this point requires a complete overhaul of the purpose of math education. There are no experts. There are just dabblers with truckloads of enthusiasm. Infectious enthusiasm. Yet, even before the language of children is fully acquired, mathematics becomes a race with winners and losers. Sure, we give the losers more and more chances, and different ways to succeed, but don’t kid yourselves. Children identify failure as a bad place to be in mathematics. And sooner you can haul your ass out of this place of mathematical purgatory, the better you will be.

Soon as you need kids to be successful and good at mathematics, you need constant measurement — opening up the Hell’s Gate of rubrics, pedantic checkpoints, and asinine milestones. Do you know how many kids I tutored — even smart kids who liked math — who when asked “what are you doing in mathematics?”, would respond with something like…”7.3". They would literally just mention a chapter section from their book thinking this was an appropriate response. That the distillate of learning mathematics could be universally codified like the bloody Dewey Decimal System.

That’s twice I have used the word “bloody” in this article. I have a sinking feeling I am going to end up the George Carlin of math education.

There is so much inert and inorganic initiatives in math education that not only does it distort what mathematics is and what the purpose is to learn it — usually involving some application/contribution to society — but it infects to the point where students ape the language/syntax of these skewed mathematical priorities.

Paul Lockhart’s lengthy subtitle in his first book, A Mathematician’s Lament, was a rebuttal to the shenanigans and deceptions that lay beneath the good intentions of student success.

I Am Not Good At Math And You Shouldn’t Be Either. (4)

Unfortunately, his comments were merely a test for echo. Test passed.

I am in my 55. Twenty-five years of being an educator under my belt — with experiences ranging from a socio-economically challenged inner-city school in Toronto to an International IB school in Switzerland. My love for mathematics has only increased over time, and my desire to wear any badge of expertise, has thankfully only gone in the opposite direction.

If anything, I am gleefully sailing towards zero.

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Please don’t mistake my strong desire for better math content as anything but a zealous hobby. I am still tinkering and puttering around with mathematics, like one would with old, muscle car. Give me a nice math problem, and I will be all over it. And, hopefully, I will fail. Reminding me once again that mathematics is much bigger than me, and that the beauty of life might lie in the surplus of questions and the deficit of time.

The performance culture of math education has gone beyond the cheating that Lockhart alluded to a generation ago. It has become a theft.

Millions of children have been robbed of their inherent curiosity. And, mathematics, perhaps the most curious emanation of the human spirit, should be in symphony with their imagination. But, it too has suffered. Miscommunication of its scope and embarrassing vaulting to a higher status than other subjects in the arts or humanities.

I quit teaching for precisely the same reason millions of kids quit sports — it was no longer fun.

I want it to make it fun — for students and teachers. Just not sure if it’s too late.

I Am Not Good At Math And You Shouldn’t Be Either. (6)

Sunil Singh is the author of Pi of Life: The Hidden Happiness of Mathematics(2017) and co-author of Math Recess(2019)

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