August 18, 2005

"It was cold and calculating. There was no gray, it was black and white."

Taking an attitude like that, about 40% of Americans say they hated math in school. Interestingly, about 25% of Americans say it was their favorite subject. The reason for loving it seems to be identical to the reason for hating it:
"When you got all done, you got answers. With English you could say a lot of words that mean different things, my interpretation might be different from any of the teachers. But with math, there's no interpretation -- two plus two is four."

12 comments:

Slocum said...

"When you got all done, you got answers. With English you could say a lot of words that mean different things, my interpretation might be different from any of the teachers. But with math, there's no interpretation -- two plus two is four."

That was the old Math. In recent years 'constructivist' Math (at least in elementary and middle school) has become something akin to a subdiscipline of English and is no longer a place of refuge for those who prefer numbers over "a lot of words".

Dale B said...

I like math but it wasn't my favorite subject. Physics was (and is) my favorite. That's probably why I became an engineer.

I've never understood the phobia a lot of people have about math, like it was some sort of magic. Math is a language, like english or german. It is a way of describing and understanding the world. As with natural languages, a particular way of thinking comes with understanding the language of math. Until you learn the mathematical way of thinking you won't really understand math. When I took Chinese in college, the hardest part about learning the language was not the grammar, syntax, and such, but changing my thinking.

I think that the problem comes when we teach math. We teach the mechanics (grammar, syntax, etc.) but gloss over the useful and interesting bits. Without the relationship to the real world, math is useless, just so many marks on the paper.

That relationship can be as simple as the obvious balancing your checkbook. Even more useful is calculating the cash flow of various financing options for buying a car or the investment choices you have in your 401k. What's important here is not so much how to do these things but knowing why they are useful things to do and what the results tell you. You can get along without this knowlege but it'll probably cost you some money.

John Thacker said...

I think that the problem comes when we teach math. We teach the mechanics (grammar, syntax, etc.) but gloss over the useful and interesting bits.

As a math graduate student, I'd like to point out that there are many who feel that those mechanics are the interesting bits.

It's hardly surprising to me that many people like math for exactly the same reasons others dislike it.

Charles said...

When I learned my kids were writing more on how they felt about math than doing math problems, I knew it was a crock. So I worked on math with them. One should be an engineer at least, math is a snap to her because she sees the relationships in the equations. The other one is still struggling now and then, but it's mostly attention to detail. And what are the large number of graduates coming from with the least math skills? English, History, Criminal Justice, and...Education. Then who goes to teach initial math skills to kids? The people that thought math was hard, and took the least number of math courses possible and scratched through with a C. No wonder math got converted to journal English. And a generation isn't that technical.

vnjagvet said...

There are some blogs which, along with their comments, penetrate or summarize what is going on in important areas of society with startling accuracy. This is one of those blogs.

It points out that just as some languages (e.g. Italian) are suited for conveying the romance and drama of Opera, others (e.g. algebra, geometry, calculus) are suited for conveying the concepts of Physics, Engineering or Finance.

I, for one, wish that reality had been explained to me in just that way when I was younger. I would have enjoyed mathematics much more had I understood that.

Thanks, Ann, and thanks dale, John and Charles

Jim Rhoads

Dale B said...

John said: As a math graduate student, I'd like to point out that there are many who feel that those mechanics are the interesting bits.

That's quite true for some people, particularly mathematicians. I was going to go into that but the comment was getting too long.

Bruce Hayden said...

I was one who love math and hated English, etc. for almost precisely those reasons. Throughout high school and my undergraduate years, I always felt that Engish and the like were totally subjective. Math and science were objective. That meant that even if I didn't suck up to the teachers, I could get a top grade, whereas most of those getting the As in English seemed to be sucking up a lot with the teachers. And somehow, being a guy, I couldn't do it.

My youngest brother, just as good as the rest of us in math, could suck up, did, and was Valditorian of his HS class.

Bruce Hayden said...

The reason that I loved math in college was that it was, bar none, the easiest major in the school. The dept. was so small - maybe 1-2% of the student body that you really got to know everyone and all the profs. Plus, it had the easiest requirements, little homework (if you understood it), no comps, thesis, or GREs.

I also loved it because to some extent, it was make believe. I used to think of some of my classes as "Let's Pretend", for example, what happens in a non-Euclidian universe where parallel lines meet. Working out the logical ramifications. That sort of thing. Great fun.

Bruce Hayden said...

John Thacker,

The mechanics are what I didn't really like. I took a bunch of engineering classes right after law school so I could sit for the patent bar, etc., and hated the mind numbing repetition. I was used to understanding the concepts and going on. In engineering school you often don't, but rather practice the mechanics until you can do them in your sleep.

Maybe it was that I knew I wouldn't actually be using the techniques in real life, but rather had to know the basics so I could undertand and explain inventions utilizing them.

And I wasn't wrong. In well over 100 patents in the electrical arts, I have yet to use very much of that stuff, and what I did need (which was rare), I could look up fairly quickly.

Bruce Hayden said...

I must say that private school mathematics seems to differ quite a bit from what appears to being taught these days in the public schools. In my daughter's private school, they work on the mechanics a lot. But then there are a lot of story problems where they have to figure out how to apply the math that they have learned.

And it seems to work. My daughter and I are working (already) on SAT prep, and she does as well on the math questions as I do (with a math degree), with three years left before she actually takes the SATs.

chuck b. said...

Except for trig, I liked math okay until calculus, and then I *loved* math. Calculus is when you start to pull back the curtain and see how powerful and beautiful math can be. The best advice I never took came from a high school math teacher. She said, "Take math until you fail." I wish I had done that.

bearing said...

"Take math until you fail."

That is great advice. Thanks for sharing

I took math until I came out twelfth in a class of thirteen. The prof, benevolently, did not fail me (it was grad school, and he was teaching his first class ever.)

Then I backed up, chose another area, and kept going.

It's still my favorite subject.

These days I teach it to my homeschooled five-year-old. I'm having a blast. I love it when he asks, "What are we doing in math today?" and I say "Tangrams!!!" and he shouts "Yayyyy!" I hope he gets this jazzed about geometry and calculus later on.