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2017 July 5 - 03:56 pm

America’s Antipathy to Math Just Doesn’t Add Up

Wired Magazine states that we humans are blessed with “pattern-making minds,” that we “understand (numbers) subjectively, and we cannot help but project meaning upon them.” But an article by mathematics instructor Elizabeth Cleland in The Atlantic avers that, despite the fact that we humans have a biological desire to order things and to find their patterns, as Wired reports, “most folks believe they either are or are not ‘math people,’ and that idea of innate math ability is very harmful.” Cleland adds that she fears the anti-math attitude among many students is bred somehow, somewhere in American culture.

And so, when I read a report in the Los Angeles Times claiming that “only 8% of first-time students in 2014-2015 completed a transfer-level math course within two years,” and that “only 3% of students entering career technical programs (at least one local community college) complete the math needed to earn a degree or to transfer,” I wondered, as I often do, why and how mathematics continues to be the educational bugbear that it has been for so long in this country.

What’s with math? Why is it the case that, as the aforementioned Atlantic article reported, people think of themselves as math people or not, as or even as words-and-language types v. numbers types, as Scientific American has put it?

Perhaps Americans’ arithmetic antipathy is handed down to them from parent to child or from elementary school educator to churlish child. Perhaps it is related to test-taking anxiety. And perhaps it comes from kids’ common tendencies to compare and contrast.

To solve this problem, I think that it might be good to start with another remark by Scientific American: “Processing high-level math concepts uses the same neural networks as the basic math skills a child is born with.”

We are born with “an intuitive sense of numbers — of quantity and arithmetic manipulation,” the Scientific American goes on, reporting neurological research done in France among the mathematically adept and the non-mathematically oriented. We all have a “number sense,” “an innate capability to recognize different quantities.” As Cleland summed up in The Atlantic, “There is no (specific) ability that allows some students to pass algebra and others to fail.”

And so, perhaps we community college partisans might do two things “across the curriculum”, as administrators might say: (1) Promote the “mental” side of the acquisition of the arithmetic, and (2) Point out the no-fear recognition that “fun math” is everywhere around us.

With respect to the “mental” side of math anxiety, Cleland notes that many of her students approach the subject of mathematics begrudgingly as drudgery. Math coursework success is required, they know, and it must be attained by rote, over and over until it meets externally set standards. Cleland suggests reminding students that “math requires perseverance and a willingness to take risks and make mistakes...you have to believe that, eventually, you will be able to understand.” Cleland promotes the practice of practice, of taking any/all the time necessary for understanding to emerge.

And understanding can be promoted, I feel, by helping students to realize that we live in a world of numbers, of the “patterns” cited by Scientific American. Building a house, surfing on a wave, throwing a ball, walking or driving along a street all require a recognition of design; putting on clothes and tapping onto the keyboard of any one of our many devices requires recognition that a pattern must and will emerge.

Cleland claims that a principal problem in popular educational analysis is that “Schools can be about sorting, or about educating.” She warns that “schools are designed to sort out those who will go to (four-year) college, those who are going into vocations, those who are going into unskilled labor, and those who are going to prison.” It’s common and comforting to believe that some individuals are “math people” and some others never will be. Those who ‘have it’ are sorted into a privileged class, while those who don’t have it are given an alternative course to obtain future cash.

But, as Cleland writes, “Our educational goal should be to help all students learn as much and as deeply as they possibly can, and to instill in them a love of learning,” rather than a desperation that they may not get a desired degree.

Perhaps it is easier to judge schools badly, to deny them funding, to chastise their teaching, if those schools are judged solely in relation to compared scores on standardized tests in mathematics. Perhaps angry voters whose pocketbooks are pinched would rather see their dollars go to something other than publicly funded community colleges, when they see that “auditor’s recommendations for stronger controls and validation of grades” are not being met, as The Los Angeles Times reports to be the case in Los Angeles, if not across California.

But we educators must push back against the public and published use of numbers to sort, to motivate the myths that: Math either is or is not in a student’s make-up; that all students must “succeed at math (standardized tests)” if they are to succeed in school, so that the school will succeed in obtaining funding for its future; and that math is a distinct thing separate from the world, an ineffable unattainable non-entity that the community collegian will never ever absolutely grasp. “The myth of innate math ability is perpetuated from generation to generation,” Cleland writes, and it is up to us to de-mystify math.

As Cleland suggests, we must make mathematical concepts non-threatening, ordinary, patterns of our pattern-dotted lives. Music is made up of math, as are sports and languages, painting and dance and biology and chemistry. Cleland reports that a parent of one of her students claimed that math is not important “in real life”, but that he changed his mind after some discussion with her. He is, she writes, an industrial architect. One should hope that his buildings stand.

My father used to say that the best, most valuable gift that he thought he could give to me would be that of a desire to know, to know how and to know why and to know more. Cleland notes that simple “training” and “sorting,” of readying students for a job market, is a Sisyphean task; the job market for which these students are being trained and into whose categories they are being sorted will be entirely different when they are ready to enter it. Let us teach students how to address problems, how to ask questions, and let us remind them that they were born with a mathematical mindset, an energy with which to experiment, a curiosity to find out how and why by learning more.

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