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Why Is It So Hard to Learn Math?

July 27, 2016
Student struggling with math

Language is hard. In fact, it’s infinitely harder and more complicated than math. And yet, nearly every small child can learn and master language.

Why is math so overwhelming for so many students? And how high is the price we pay from having so many math-terrified or even math-illiterate people in our society? Too high, especially as the ability to grasp data and pursue advanced work that involves math is becoming increasingly important for both citizens and job applicants.

It often starts with the problem of teaching math in the abstract. This misses the remarkable amount of mathematical knowledge that we humans already possess. We know how to solve for unknowns, for example. That’s algebra.  We also are able to think in terms of three dimensional spaces—that’s geometry and trigonometry. So this mathematical language is the analytical expression of the way we already think.

But how many of us feel incapable, rather than poorly taught or sent down a wrong path, when we are confronted with the rigors of math? How many children who struggled to grasp math concepts, who lacked the necessary tool kit, were led to feel stupid, even demeaned?

Every step along the way, as math education becomes more abstract and complex, we lose more and more students. What may have begun as genuine curiosity fades over time.

Compare it to spoken or written language. When you make a mistake, a teacher corrects the part that is wrong. And then you proceed. With math, if you don’t have the correct result, it is typically treated as wrong.  And, as mistake after mistake builds up, too many students simply give up: I can’t do math.

The talking Barbie doll of the early ’90s – “math class is tough” – was not just offensive. It reinforced this self-defeating attitude.

But math is not about intelligence. It’s a language that too many people never learn, often because the education process misses the number of ways that a given person can arrive at a given solution.

That’s not a failure of children to learn.  That’s a failure of teaching. It’s a failure of the school.  We should not blame the student. (These are children, after all.)

Part of the challenge is to identify the gaps in knowledge, to clarify that the challenge is not that a student simply doesn’t understand algebra or trigonometry or whatever. There may be a particular basic concept that stands in the way of going forward in math, as well as other fields such as social science or engineering.

By going back and working through what they don’t know, we can break down barriers that discourage students from pursuing fields and careers in which math knowledge is an entry point—and inaccessible if they struggle with fundamental math concepts.

Overcoming this block requires moving beyond broad industrialized education and to individualized, personalized learning that allows students to find their own way in. Show me a thousand students and I’ll show you a thousand different pathways that they might take to achieve math success. Except for that fraction of students who grasp math however it is presented, most may struggle to understand when the instruction fails to provide individualized learning.

With new digital technologies and a massive amount of data collection and analytics, we have the ability to help students identify the essential concepts they don’t understand. We have data on all the students that solved a particular math problem and those that failed to solve it. We also have data on the problems they were able to solve prior to that.

So as a student recognizes that they are struggling with, say, negative number concepts, they can go back and master the material—to fill in the gaps that allows them to go forward. And when they hit another tough spot? They can jump to the problems that allows them to master that concept. The hope is that as they progress, their interest and enthusiasm increases, further fueling their advancement.    

We are pursuing this approach at the university level. We also are seeking to incorporate this approach at the high school, middle school and elementary levels. This will make it possible for a growing number of students to pursue degrees and careers that they never thought they had the tools or aptitude to master.

In the years ahead, that mindset, borne out of the failure of math instruction, should diminish. If we can succeed at breaking down the assumption that there’s something wrong with a 3rd grader who cannot learn math—rather than something wrong with the teaching process—then we can look forward to new generations of math-literate citizens. Whatever career they choose, they will be more confident and more capable to understand and contribute to an increasingly complex, data-driven world.