Sunday, August 23, 2009

Why Children Hate Math

I'm not about to join a cult like the Pythagoreans, but I'll be honest: I love math. There are several possible explanations for this:
-My Dad raised us on Raymond Smullyan books, so I always thought math was a game and not a serious subject, even if I sometimes screwed up solving problems and accidentally got prisoners eaten by tigers.
-I believe that God created the world around statistics, and that maybe statistics can do more to save lives than advances in technology (check out the war chapter in Atul Gawande's Better) .
-It is a sad fact that math classes tend to decrease students' interest in math. The last math class I took, however, was in a previous millennium. My appreciation for mathematical relationships has increased exponentially since then, as evidenced by much use of the word "exponential" to describe an emotional progression.

Because I love math, I tend to get frustrated when politicians talk about improving math education. I remember Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney, for example, calling for more math teachers with master's degrees in mathematics: as if people who did well at math naturally would consequently be better teachers for those who struggle. Other politicians call for more math testing and heavier courseloads as if more math were automatically produced better math education. Sorry, folks, but that ain't the way this equation goes.

I'm also frustrated that most states still have a curriculum that is focused more on pushing as many students as possible as far toward calculus as possible, presumably on the assumption that we need better engineers to win the Cold War, as opposed to the reality that we need a general public that understand basic quantitive reasoning, are numerically literate, and don't shut down mentally and emotionally at the very sight of numbers.

It's not the politicians' fault, though. I am the reason children hate math.

I know this because I reduced my nephew-to-be to tears on Saturday night simply by counting. I wasn't even angry--I just wanted he and my daugher-to-be to put their (respective) pajamas on. And when they were slow, I started to count to five...

Braeden wept all the way up the stairs. Twenty minutes later, when he was finally getting to bed, he was still trying to tell me "I don't like it when you count because I think I'm going to get in trouble."

Now, a more casual observer might see nothing more in this incident than a nine-year-old who desperately needed to go to sleep and could have cried just as easily over not being able to find a pajama shirt he was already wearing. But a more clever, goldbergish observer can see the long-term repurcussions of such experiences. Years of counting to warn of impending punishment creates an association between numerical modes of expression and anxiety. Children subconsciously assume that too many numbers invariably lead to time-outs. No wonder they're afraid of math.

I don't know exactly how to solve this problem, and am certainly open to suggestions. My current thought is to replace the counting by naming Disney movies when children need to listen or hurry and discipline them if I reach The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I think it's quite healthy for children to develop an inexplicable fear of that.

"Choose me or your pyre / I gonna sing about Hellfire"
That Disney let this dude sing a song is way creepier than
any math I've ever known.


  1. Understanding the rule of cardinality is developmentaly appropriate especially at Braeden's age.

  2. Two things: I went the Statistics-over-Calculus-Route and I'm very grateful for it, because I, too, love math and the practical use of it in daily life. Also, my mom never let us watch "Hunchback" because of that man and his song, so I think this new counting system would be very effective, at least for my mother.

  3. I am one of the people that do not like math. But I do like Better, it's such a good book.
    Interesting comparision between parents counting and children hating math...

    Btw, have you seen Donald in Mathmagic Land?

    Part 1 of 3. Very cute!

  4. If time-outs, preceeded by counting, have contributed to a fear of numbers, then things must have been so much better in the days when people beat their children. Instead, they became afraid of leather--you know, belts, etc...I'm surprised that we didn't get an entire generation of PETA activists, but oh well.

  5. Statistics does have a way of putting the world into perspective. One of my favourite (note the English spelling)statistics quotes is 'think how dumb the average person is--then realise that half the people in the world are even dumber than that!'

  6. You have discovered what I like to call a “fundamental truth.” Unfortunately counting and trouble are inseparably linked. Perhaps that should be one of math’s theorems. At some point you will need to level with the youngsters: counting usually leads to trouble. A dare doesn’t have anywhere near the amount of pressure as a triple dog dare. The basic formula never changes: 3 “counts” of conspiracy, 4 “counts” grand larceny. The only difference being the numbers get bigger, instead of a 3 count I have 30 days to “comply.” It isn’t so much that “they” are always watching but that “they” are always counting. Regardless of whether one has refused to put on pajamas or “misappropriated” funds failure to obey results in timeout: 5 minutes in the corner for the former or 5 to 10 in adult timeout (you know, the one with orange suits and iron bars) for the latter. Either way counting up or down just doesn’t end well. And leave it to politicians to show us just how bad that can be (see Daisy Girl – Democrat commercial #2).

  7. Wow. It's too bad that the Apocalypse Club isn't meeting anymore or we could talk about the implications of the counting/end-of-the-world relationship the ad suggests.


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