I'm bad at math... and fine with that!

I just received a nice article from Jim Stone, a math teacher at Global Institute of Mathematics.

I enjoyed it; I thought you might too. I've seen this issue raised and talked about elsewhere as well.

Namely, that it seems to be socially acceptable to admit how bad you're at math... while no one would comfortably admit that they can't read.

So here goes:

I'm bad at math and I’m okay with it!
By Jim Stone

For the past eighteen years I’ve been reading articles and editorials lamenting the mathematical performance of America’s school children. It has become an annual ritual for politicians and educators alike to bemoan the results of the latest tests showing American kids falling behind their international counterparts.

What is the problem? More importantly, what is the solution?

The answer to the first question is almost always laid at the doorstep of our system of education. Blaming the system is safe. No one person represents the system. No one person is held accountable. Everyone can look outside themselves for accountability.

Attempts at fixing the system have largely focused on three areas: overhauling mathematical curriculum, changing the methodology of teaching that curriculum and the implementation of standardized tests to measure what kids know.

But here is the problem. The performance of American students has remained stagnant. Despite the implementation of integrated curricula, the establishment of benchmarks and a seemingly never ending battery of standardized tests, American students still lag behind students beyond our borders.

Perhaps we are missing the boat. Perhaps the problem isn’t really the system with its traditional curriculum. Perhaps the problem isn’t with a traditional lesson beginning with going over homework from the previous day, an introduction to a new topic followed by time working on a new homework assignment. Perhaps the problem is more societal. Perhaps the problem lies with us all.

Since becoming a high school mathematics teacher I have been struck by the seemingly countless times I have heard parents and other adults, well educated or not, utter statements such as, “math was my worse subject” or “I can’t do math.”

I have never once heard a person say, “I can’t read.” Why, then, is it so acceptable to publicly declare, without the slightest bit of embarrassment, one’s inability to do mathematics? In our society one would be shamed and embarrassed to admit their inability to read. The point is it is perfectly acceptable to be poor at mathematics in this country. We are an anomaly compared to most of the rest of the world when it comes to our comfortable attitude that it is acceptable to be poor at math. Is there any doubt that our children haven’t learned this lesson?

Or have they? While American adults casually admit to their mathematical ignorance, American children appear to overestimate their mathematical ability. In a 2003 study, 84% of American 8th graders agreed with the statement, “I usually do well in mathematics.” Of their counterparts in Singapore, 64% agreed with the same statement. Confidence often, especially in America, is considered as a positive personality trait. However, it is ironic that of the same group of 8th graders, the least confident students in Singapore, on average, outscored the most confident American students on an international math test.

If the results of the 2003 study are accurate, then our young students are overconfident. If my informal observations over the years are accurate, they ultimately learn of their shortcomings and then shrug them off with a cavalier attitude of acceptable incompetence. If so, then new curriculum, changes in pedagogy and an implementation of standardized tests are not addressing the real problem and, therefore, doom us to perpetual mediocrity.

Perhaps we all share the responsibility for the dismal mathematical performance of our children. If so, it begs a difficult and frightening question: What can be done about it?

Jim Stone, a math and physics teacher for more than 18 years, teaches at Global Institute of Mathematics.

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