Saturday, June 27, 2009


in·nu·mer·ate adj. Unfamiliar with mathematical concepts and methods.//-->n. A person who is unfamiliar with mathematical concepts and methods.//-->in·nu'mer·a·cy n.

The other night, I was tutoring a student S down by the apartment complex pool. This is an arrangement that seems to be helping this student. I take a white board down there, attach it to the fence with tie-wraps and use it to do examples, or have him work out a problem with guidance. We work for about 40 mins then jump in the pool for 5-10 mins, then work a little longer. We do this until he can't handle any more. We had been doing this for the last week.

Several people that were hanging out by the pool were fascinated that we were doing Algebra. These people ranged in age from mid-20's to late-40's. Every one of them had to mention that they were "bad at math." Then they went on to describe exactly how "bad at math" they were. They asked if what we were doing was high school math. Sort of. This student is a high school student, but most students take Algebra in 8th grade now. One woman indicated that she now knew why her daughter was doing bad in math in 8th grade, if what I had on the white board was 8th grade math.

My first thought is very catty and elitist: you don't know what your kid was doing in math class, but you knew she wasn't doing well? You didn't make it your business to find out or try to help her? Then I realized that her attitude of being "bad at math" was probably the cause. Most people that think they are "bad at math" are actually kind of scared of math, in my experience. So I tried not to be judgmental, and just answered their questions openly and tried to be warm.

Anyway, the conversation made me think of this Mathchique post where she discusses math phobia as a cultural problem. I kept thinking that Mathchique is right. Pretty much anyone would be embarrassed to say, "I can't read" as an adult, but it is almost a point of honor to say "I'm bad at math." Why?

I do think that movies like A Beautiful Mind and TV shows like Numbers could be heralding a change in the culture. At least I hope so.

The National Mathematics Advisory Panel is recommending that we need a cultural shift about math. One of their statements is that "students who believe learning mathematics is strongly related to innate ability show less persistence on complex tasks than peers who believe that effort is more important. "

Read that carefully. What it is saying is that if you believe you are bad at math, you will not practice enough to get better, because you don't believe you'll be able to get better. Wow.

Listen to this story to NPR about the international math test. Mainstream news emphasized that the US had improved in the scores. They rarely mentioned that we are doing better than third world countries, but 5 Asian countries score higher than us. Remember the Two Million Minutes video?

Let's combine those two ideas: if you think math skills are innate (meaning that you are born with an "ability" to do math) you will not practice enough to learn it, nor will you make it a priority to spend the time to practice it.

I'm going to state something here: very, very few people are born with an ability to instinctively understand math. Most of us have to work at it. And just like anything else, the more you work at it, the more you practice, the better you will get at it. That means more than 15 minutes to attempt your homework and give up.

It means copying and working out the examples if you don't understand. It means reading the next section before class, so the lecture isn't entirely new. It means working at it until you understand it. It means asking questions.

You CAN learn it and get better at it.


  1. testing leaving a message

  2. Christian Baune ( tried to leave the following as a comment. I'm not sure why it didn't work, so I'm posting the entire email below:

    Hi here is a comment that I could not add to your article :

    It's like logic. In fact most of them is higly logical when you know the rules. If you are not "mathematics enabled", you can still practice. The only difference is time.

    The fact is that when you train yourself you must work at new problems and not at variant. Do not take a problem and solve it twice changing the data. It will only train you to solve that kind of problem and will box you !

    What you can do is solving the same problem twice keeping it unchanged but using another approach. Some problems are hard to solve using standard approach you learned at school. But using "ha ha" you can solve problems that seems nearly impossible at first glance but once you STUDIED it became so easy that you could doubt about your solution and solve it again just to check. Once you'll be used to solve it 3 times then you can say I'm really good at maths.

    I'm used to solve problem and help people. My advices came from experiance.

    When I'm solving problem, I limit myself to 3d form background because if you can't break down a problem to a 3d grade level then that means that you missed something. It's true for most problems ;-)
    The remainder are not interesting an most of the time direct application of formulas.

    Thank you for reading.

  3. testing a different setting.

  4. and. . . testing one other setting.

  5. testing still