Fear of and failure in math has had a profound effect on my life, and I know that I am not alone.
But my discomfort with math prevented me from going straight to college when I got out of high school, and, in fact, it even kept me from enrolling in a college prep program when I signed up for high school.
I did eventually complete my four years of college well into middle age.
But whether we go to college or not, we all need a good working knowledge of math.
As far as I know, it’s a settled fact that some of us are math oriented and some of us are not. And I am pretty well convinced that I am not. But that does not mean I do not understand any of its concepts or how to work out relatively simple problems.
In fact, I noticed early on that I was pretty good at word problems, with my main hang-up being I might get lost in the actual mechanics of calculations (such as long division, or worse yet, fractions, or even worse, fractions and long division combined).
So, if I could just do better at the mechanics of it, I think I’d be as good or better than some who whiz through already printed out problems. That’s because I think in some instances I might be able to interpret word problems quicker than some who speed through problems already laid out for them.
Beyond not being math oriented, I think my initial problem in the lower grades was that I was somewhat lazy about the whole thing — all those rows of problems we were always given.
Also, like so many pupils, I was intimidated by fractions — they looked so strange. And it didn’t help that the tone from most of my teachers was that fractions are hard.
(And let me break away from my main point to say that as far as teaching things like fractions, I think a little real world practice could help — have pupils use a ruler to measure things and let them get used to using those lines between the numbers that represent fractions — that way they form a mental picture of what a fraction is. Pictures of pies are nice, but cutting up a real pie and relating the pieces to the fractions they represent could help. )
Also, it seemed that we did not stay with fractions for any length of time. We’d do them for a couple of weeks or so and then never see them again until the next year when they again reared their ugly head.
And did you ever try to get your folks to help you? Oh, my God! I wouldn’t advise it for anyone.
A few times my sister was forced into helping me and that helped. One of my brothers did too, and that helped. But they had their own work to do and did not have the time nor interest to be my constant tutor, and they may have not had confidence that I was really paying attention. And I was the pesky little brother, baby of the family — still am at 60.
But let’s stop right here. That’s the key for people like me (and again, I know that I am not unique in this). We need tutoring. Of course we have to want to be helped too. But I think the easy availability of help encourages most of us to seek it out.
In all public schools, from the lower grades to the higher grades, as well as at junior colleges, there should be fully-staffed tutoring centers, and staffed with professionals, as well as student helpers. I think that might be more important than new teaching methods or endless worksheets.
(And it does no one any good, the individual or society as a whole, for students to be passed on from grade to grade without proper mastery of the basics, of which math is one.)
I would not have been able to get through my minimal requirements in beginning algebra without some tutoring help from the junior college I attended. That help allowed me to go on and complete intermediate algebra, for which I had no tutoring, except from some fellow students. But by this time I was well into middle age and motivated to complete college. (Motivation always helps.)
I’m not trying to write some sob story here and say boo hoo for me. I’m hoping that some teachers and some school board members and some parents and some voters might read and identify and get something out of it and that in some way it might contribute to the improvement in the way we teach math in this country.
I should mention here that things may have changed drastically since I was in school, but from what I have read and observed, not that much.
By the time I got to eighth grade I was still treading water in arithmetic. We added, subtracted, multiplied and divided and did some word problems, to include some fractions. And I’ll always remember my math teacher. He would just shake his head at how poorly most of us did (the better students were in a different class) and then say things like: “I don’t know what you’re going to do when you get to high school and have to take algebra”.
Not only was I doing poorly at math, I was getting no encouragement whatsoever, and not extra help either — teachers had no interest or time to help you after class.
I was supposed to take college prep classes in high school. But I told my counselor of my fear of math and he let me slip by. You see, to take college prep classes, I would not only have to take higher math (algebra and so on), I would have to take biology and chemistry and such. Instead, I took something called “General Math”, nothing but grammar school level work. I took a science class but had difficulties, not because I was not interested, quite the contrary — but math is an integral part of science. (I took ag science, but in my day that was a misnomer, since real science was only touched lightly.)
In my senior year my counselor put me into a class called “Senior Math”. I think all the kids that took algebra but flunked algebra were in it. They at least knew how to begin. The teacher refused to help me. He said I was too far behind and he did not have time.
While the onus is on the student (along with his or her parents), someone at the school level needs to take time. And if there is no time, we need to find out why and do something about it (like forcing some of those so-called math teachers who spend more time working as coaches do the job they are supposed to be doing).
My main complaint against many math teachers is that they like to help students who do not need help and do not have patience to help those who do.
We need quality teachers and we need enough of them and we need support from those who make the policy, such as school board members and legislators and those who vote for them.
Please, any math teachers who read this (to include one of my brothers), do not think I am indicting all teachers. But I’ll bet you good teachers know what I am talking about.
I only present this from the perspective of an ex-student myself and of someone who is intelligent enough to understand math but who is not math oriented.
Please don’t tell me calculators and computers have eliminated the hard work. You need to know what you are doing and not have to depend upon a machine that could turn unreliable. And calculators do not solve problems by themselves — garbage in, garbage out.