Math learning and unhappiness

Recently Brown Center published a Report on American Education with a special sector about the happiness factor in learning.

The report is based on 2003 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMMS) data.

The TIMSS study found that countries in which kids report enjoying mathematics and feeling confident in it do worse in math than kids who report they don't like math and are not feeling confident in it.

American students are much more confident about their math abilities than Singapore students, yet they do far worse: Even the least confident students in Singapore outscore the most confident students in America!

Check the charts (slides) from the report... a PDF file. It's quick and easy to glance over for more details and charts.

The report author Tom Loveless was questioning the idea of teaching math so that students like it... that we don't need to always make math enjoyable.

I can almost hear my homeschooling readers' anger raising...!

But wait a minute.

Mr. Loveless said, "We might want to focus on the math that kids are learning and just be a little less obsessed with the fact that they have to enjoy every minute of it."

"The implication is not 'Let's go make kids unhappy,"' he said. "It's 'Let's give kids better signals as to how they're performing, relative to the rest of the world."'

This effect in the U.S. may be due to the fact that by and large, mathematics instruction is delivered as easy, small, bite-size chunks that are easy for students to swallow.

Then, as they proceed in such a fashion from year to year, and never encounter problems that take more than X (X being a single-digit number) minutes to solve, they will obviously be confident of their mathematical abilities and think that they do well in mathematics.

In contrast, their peers in Singapore probably encounter challenging problems and frustration over those.

In the long run, those students don't feel so confident about math because they have gotten a glimpse about the fact there is a lot they don't know.

But in the process, they have learned the easier stuff better than their U.S. counterparts who seemingly don't often get beyond the simplest things in any mathematical topic.

Is there a solution?

Well, I certainly don't feel that we have to take the joy out of mathematics learning to get good results.

But on the other hand, the students need to encounter challenges if they are to be well proficient in the subject.

The truth, as always, must be somewhere in the middle.

When learning any topics - say fractions - we can give students easy bits at first. Then as they master those, go towards more difficult problems - AND not allow them to give up on these challenging problems so quickly.

Maybe group work could be used with those, as well.

It requires a good teacher that can do that - encourage and couch the students without giving them the answers, without letting them give up too easily.

I fathom that the frenzy on testing cuts down the time that would otherwise be used for deeper things and challenging problems. Teachers are probably in between a rock and a hard place as far as what they can devote the class time to.

What are your thoughts?

Several other bloggers have gotten on to this too:


Luboš Motl's reference frame

Mathematics and (un)happiness by Alexandre Borovik

Mathematics & (un)happiness at NeverEndingBooks

See also:

CNN news: Confident students do worse in math; bad news for U.S.

The 2006 Brown Center Report on American Education:
How Well Are American Students Learning?
- With special sections on the nation's achievement, the happiness factor in learning, and honesty in state test scores


hey I would have emailed you but I cant find your email address.

What do you think of Ray's Arithmetic? the price is right and I wonder if it is still a workable homeschool math program.

Mama Squirrel said…
I've linked to your post!
Maria Miller said…
Thanks mama squirrel!

It's always nice to know that someone else finds my postings interesting!

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