Why did you stop hating math?
December 9, 2011 3:38 PM   Subscribe

In high school you hated math, but later you stopped hating it. How did this happen?

I'm asking in hopes of learning something that would help me encourage this transition in students that I teach.

I've seen this thread, but it's mostly about the hate and not about recovery from hate.
posted by stebulus to Education (45 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
A lot of people that hate arithmetic really get discrete math. Logic and sets are the good stuff.
posted by b1tr0t at 3:43 PM on December 9, 2011 [3 favorites]

What kicked in was trigonometry, in that I could finally see the practical applications to much of what seemed like utter bullshit.

"'Find the length of side X?' Who fucking cares? Just whip out a ruler and, like, measure side X."

"Yes, but what if side X was, say, the side of a skyscraper, or the height of a mountain, or the distance from the earth to the moon, and no ruler on earth could possibly be made for this task?"

posted by Cool Papa Bell at 3:52 PM on December 9, 2011 [9 favorites]

Having a fantastic algebra teacher who was a young, single woman and therefore a superb role model. [She even insisted on being called "Ms. Wayne," and corrected every "Miss Wayne" when people forgot.]
But really, it was finally understanding that math was like a puzzle or a game, so you have to learn the rules, and then the fun begins.
posted by honey badger at 3:52 PM on December 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

I had a difficult time grasping concepts and doing homework so my math grades were always low. When I became an adult and learned how math is actually applicable to the "real world", I began to appreciate it and grasped the concepts easily because I could apply it to specific contexts. Math is fun!

Another influence on one's experience of math is having an engaging instructor. I've dropped math classes in college because I just knew what the entire term was going to be like based on the instructor's teaching style. In High School, you have few options.
posted by loquat at 3:54 PM on December 9, 2011

1- Because you could finally see the use for it.
2- Because it takes a couple go-arounds for it to "click" in some people's minds. I didn't understand a moment of trig in HS, but then someone used it to describe something about 10 years later and it all came together.

I've taken classes where the learning is done in a layered approach, and it has helped me a lot. Where instead of marching from topic to topic, each class or chapter overlaps from the previous and onto the next. (Maybe it is just some people, or just me. But if I have one hour to devote to a problem, I will be FAR more successful if I do a half hour, then sleep on it, and then do the next half hour, rather than trying to do it all in one shot. More often than not, I'll dream about the problem...)

Also, having a theme. In high school, calculus and chemistry were presented as sort of a history lesson. "So-and-so was trying to solve this problem, and here is how he ultimately figured it out. We will work through his steps."
posted by gjc at 3:57 PM on December 9, 2011

I stopped hating it when I scored unexpectedly high on math components of standardized tests. I think I hated it because I believed I wasn't good at it, which turned into somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophesy and affected my attitude and effort in high school math classes.
posted by MoonOrb at 4:04 PM on December 9, 2011

I hated it until mid 5th grade when my teacher told my parents at my current rate I was definitely failing the class. Curriculum be damned my mother took a textbook and said if I worked every exercise on every page to the end of the book by the end of the year she'd buy me two Nintendo games and some Reebok Pumps. I did more homework that first night than perhaps any other night in my life, and did on average 4 pages a night with one day off a week until the book was done and I got my stuff.

After that math was a breeze and I was always at the top of the class in it.

One could draw a few simple things from my example, but one I would point out is I feel like it worked similarly to how the military trains people: It will give them simple tasks, and they accomplish those simple tasks, over and over, and build on them, and eventually they have enough self-respect, esteem and practice to do their job somewhat reliably. After I first conquered the problem in 5th grade each new thing in math was simple and even entertaining to approach.
posted by BurnMage at 4:06 PM on December 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

Visual math examples. The UK introduced a new curriculum when I was about 14. I went from 31st in my class (out of 31) to 1st, in a single term - and I stayed there.
For example, calculus is pretty meaningless, when explained as the rate of change (a derivative), or the sum of all values (an integral). But see this interactive curve, for an example of what that means if you change some of the values in a continuous function. That type of visualization was what changed me from a languages major into a computer nerd ... :-)
posted by Susurration at 4:06 PM on December 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Having a use for it, even if the use wasn't particularly special. I hated algebra till it became useful in calculus.

It also helped when I realized it was stupid that I was letting this one thing beat me. Math is uniquely hard for me - everything else I more or less "get" as soon as I see it, whereas math takes real work. It wasn't until this affected me in a pride-related sense that I finally was willing to do the work.

Oh, and having a really good foundation in the basics helped a lot, too. I love the Khan Academy approach, where you're told to do things in a certain order and everything seems to build on something you just did. Especially once you're into algebra, it seems like everything's pretty freaking random (at least, it did to me.)

The day I realized trigonometry would be a lot easier if I tried "figuring out why that works" instead of "memorize a bunch of postulates" was also quite momentous. Good teaching really helps.
posted by SMPA at 4:06 PM on December 9, 2011

I stopped hating it once I found a use for it. A real-world use, not filling out worksheets or answering contextless questions. The only maths I ever enjoyed at school was geometry, because it was somehow instantly applicable to the real world. Now I have job that has ostensibly nothing to do with maths, but I run into problems that I need to use maths to solve (usually geometry, admittedly).
posted by Joh at 4:11 PM on December 9, 2011

My teachers finally got me into math when they affirmed to me, "you are great at this." and told me all the stuff I was doing well before they pointed out my errors.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 4:12 PM on December 9, 2011

I hated math up until I hit geometry, then I figured out that it was a puzzle; the solution is inherent in the question, once you tease it out, and that appealed to me.

Then I hated mate some more until I got a job where I had to use algebra, in some form or another, every single day. Luckily by that point I was old enough that numbers just didn't scare me any more, so I guess you could say that I grew out of it.
posted by lekvar at 4:24 PM on December 9, 2011

I had a great great teacher at the local junior college. She was enthusiastic, funny, and completely sui generis, which I love. She was a zillion feet tall and wore high heels and sewed her own clothes and made fun of the boyzone that was the rest of the department.

Also, it was trig, which turned numbers into pictures, which seemed like magic.

I have completely forgotten her name, which is shameful. I still got a C on most of her exams, but she knew I was just a crappy, liberal-arts-style-write-down-your-first-answer test taker, since I was in her office every damn day going over my homework and even extra work, so she gave me a B for the class.

For a few delirious weeks I actually contemplated becoming a math major.
posted by small_ruminant at 4:31 PM on December 9, 2011

I was always great at math, but my friends hated it and generally got fairly bad grades while excelling in other areas. I think it was the way it was taught. In english or history or even science it is ok to ask why or ask more in depth questions, in high-school math not so much. They just really needed a teacher to explain kindly and praise them once they understood the concept rather than look at them quizzically (rudely in my opinion) when they didn't get it.
posted by boobjob at 4:32 PM on December 9, 2011

Yeah, seconding the use of it. College trig did it for me.

I had started school in Europe, then in second grade switched to an American school and found myself behind in basic addition. I literally did not catch up until I was in university, then all of a sudden it was easy and fun.

I attribute that to the horrible teachers I had in elementary school, junior high, and high school. They were utterly disinterested in the subject themselves, and their own smoldering, suffocating agony seeped into the subject itself, like some kind of demonic osmosis.

My trig prof in college was a 25 year old Scottish guy who already had his PhD. He looked like the guy from Simply Red, and he - I don't know, just the way he framed the conversation about math, it all just clicked for me. Me developing more mature attitudes towards my studies helped, too. I like math now.

Yeah I like yard work too, another 180 degree turn from when I was younger. Go figure.
posted by Xoebe at 4:33 PM on December 9, 2011

I stopped hating it when I could apply it in real-world situations. Of course, the real-world situations I needed it for didn't happen in high-school, or were things I didn't care about. It's only now I have a need to calculate fertilizer formulas and how they change with different sources of nutrients, or to do site analysis of varied terrain.

Geometry in middle school was pretty fun, though. We built a lot of things out of paper.
posted by oneirodynia at 4:33 PM on December 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

I still hate meth. It's a terrible drug that has ... oh wait. I was really bad at math (still am!) but struggled through. I did not really start to appreciate and love math until I started finding applications for mathematical techniques that were relevant to what I was doing as a student scientist and that really opened doors to understanding for me. In most cases, the mathematics education I had received never even touched upon these topics because they were seemingly more "advanced" than the highest level of formal education I reached (differential equations, fyi). The pedagogy of mathematics is terrible, and please accept my apologies all math teachers who read this. It's not you. Math is (usually?) presented linearly. You learn about thing A in exhaustive detail, then on to thing B, etc. and the A, B ... Z sequence seems to be rigid. Does it have to be? I'm not sure.

I agree with Cool Papa Bell that 'real-world' applications are the best. And maybe, you know, jump ahead a bit to the good stuff? Statistics - kids who are sports fans love sabermetrics, how is that stuff derived? Everyone's interested in health - how do they test drugs and know they're effective? Trigonometry - how do you measure the heights of mountains, find the range to the enemy battleship? Equations of motion - let's fly to Mars (or calculate the drag of a race car!). Matrix algebra - how do you represent vectors? Boolean algebra - good for kids who want to go into programming. Optimization - how do you solve problems and get answers from imperfect data? I just don't see these sort of things being an integral part of the learning experience. Instead it's: here's how you solve an algebraic equation 124 different ways, and there's a colored box in the never-opened textbook that asserts this is useful for something. Not sure that's effective. *sigh*
posted by zomg at 4:40 PM on December 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

I grew up in a house where there was a lot of carpentry, so getting through geometry proofs to the parts where we could measure stuff, even stuff we couldn't see was good for me. Also I am good at standardized tests and I realized that the sort of math you are tested in is a little different from the math you have in class [i.e. if you needed complicated formulas they'd give them to you, you mostly had to figure out what was a WRONG answer and I liked shooting down wrong answers pew pew]. The other things, which I've come to more recently, is seeing math in other things I care about [voting, census data and sampling, statistical significance] and realizing that knowing the basics will help me understand things I really care about.Math as an end in and of itself didn't really do it for me. Also I never took math past high school and I've found that being able to keep that level of math in my head [pre-calc] this whole time (several decades) has actually made me a math genius compared to all non-programmer non-engineer friends of mine. I think I thought math just got harder and harder for ever, but at some point you learn most of the basics you need to know and you can level off at cruising altitude and just do what you want about it.

I now read math hobby books for fun and some of the stories of the weird math geniuses helped give me hooks into things I might otherwise not care that much about, the origin stories, so to speak.
posted by jessamyn at 4:41 PM on December 9, 2011

I hated math in school partly because I saw no use for it and mostly because it was so overwhelming. Almost every class was lecture or some activity to learn the subject, and we'd have maybe 15 mins to start on homework. Hours would then go by before I returned to the homework that night, when I was all alone with nobody to help me. Except my parents both loved math and who wanted to help by giving me another 40 minute lecture about how it all worked, so I sure wasn't about to ask them. So every night was mounting frustration about 40 unsolvable problems or 40 super easy and redundant problems.

What always helped was significant chunks of time in class to do most or all of the homework. It helped a lot to know my friends struggled with the exact same problems and could help each other through it. I know some math teachers who are experimenting with having students listen to lecture podcasts as homework and then use class time to work on problem sets under teacher supervision, which I think is an excellent way to solve this problem.
posted by lilac girl at 5:15 PM on December 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

I don't know if this is an answer you will like, but I hated math in high school, didn't take a single math class in college because I was scarred by my high school math experience, and then accidentally fell into a career where I was forced to deal with numbers (I am a buyer). What did it for me was a) using math in pursuit of something that inspired me (hospitality food & beverage procurement - I got to work with chefs developing their recipes) and b) having to program spreadsheets for budgets. Honestly, if I had been taught MS Excel in high school, I would have gotten over my hatred of math much sooner.

Just my two cents.
posted by thereemix at 5:18 PM on December 9, 2011

I had a super hot math teacher.
posted by duvatney at 5:26 PM on December 9, 2011

I was a straight-A student in math all the way through elementary, middle, and high school.

But I hated it. It was boring. It was just another hoop to jump through. It was a puzzle concealing an answer I didn't care to know. Numbers leading to more numbers.

Only when I realized that mathematics could be used (and must be used) to answer scientific questions did I become in any way concerned with math.

So, I think getting students interested in applied math, at least, should be exactly as easy as getting them interested in science.
posted by edguardo at 5:33 PM on December 9, 2011

she knew I was just a crappy, liberal-arts-style-write-down-your-first-answer test taker
Wow. Small_ruminant, how did you pass a liberal arts major doing this? (Really, I have no idea how that would work, having been a liberal arts major myself. With the exception of a few classes taught by bad teachers - for which one had to just memorise their quirks - I pretty much remember studying the same way for everything. Those few bad-teacher classes? One history class, one math-y logic class, and one odd history-of-science class.)

Like a lot of people here, I got the 'puzzle' aspect of geometry much more than algebra...I suspect that this has to do with how these two types of class are generally taught. Geometry classes are far more about narrative than algebra classes usually are. With anything less than a great teacher, an algebra class can rapidly turn into an exercise in drill-and-kill.

For me, the shoe finally dropped with statistics, which I loved and stuck with in my work life. It's not only interesting and puzzle-y, it's useful literally every single day.

For anyone interested in trying the BurnMage method of math review (TM), Saxon Math books might be useful - they are famous for providing tons and tons of progressive practice (so much that most people skip at least some of it), and offer kits that include answer keys and additional info for those learning or re-learning math outside a classroom.
posted by Wylla at 5:39 PM on December 9, 2011

When I started working for a bank and discovered that they would pay me to do all that stuff that I thought was BS back in the day.
posted by brownrd at 5:47 PM on December 9, 2011

When it turned into calculus and discrete mathematics. When it stopped being a slog through obvious arithmetic, hoops to jump through, and became complicated and abstract enough to be interesting, and also powerful enough to be useful.
posted by krilli at 5:59 PM on December 9, 2011

I've always had something of a love/hate relationship with math. Or more accurately I have always hated "Math" as a course, but I love doing very math-centric problem solving (such as in my physics and engineering courses).

I personally place the blame on low-level Math courses spending an inordinate amount of time feeding you definitions and manipulating things for no obvious reason. Clearly this is to give you the tools and vocabulary to actualy talk about math on some meaningful level, and that certainly has value. But I think it has the secondary effect of convincing many of us that Math is just a pointless exercise in shuffling characters around on paper and giving the result fancy and hard to remember names.

I also recommend discrete math, if you approach it right it really is just playing with numbers and logic, and it is fun and surprising. I took a course called "Discrete Math" in University as an elective and was struck by how much I would have enjoyed math in secondary school if it was more of this and less of "memorize these definitions!".
posted by selenized at 6:02 PM on December 9, 2011

Recontextualizing it. When I started programming and realized trig could be used for stuff like, oh, programming LASER GUNS IN AN AWESOME ALIEN SPACE BATTLE, I started pikcing it up fast. I need practical purpose for my learning.
posted by GilloD at 6:04 PM on December 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

I started playing poker.
posted by pointystick at 6:06 PM on December 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Lest that last answer seem flip, learning how to calculate pot odds made me love math again.
In addition, even though I don't play blackjack, learning how card counters "do it" was fascinating.

It took being around degenerates to make me love math, but it worked a charm!
posted by pointystick at 6:13 PM on December 9, 2011

I took an alternative math program in high school which was interdisciplinary, incorporating short stories (we had to calculate how far the pendulum would swing in Poe's "The Pit and the Pendulum"). We also worked in groups and every week we had a "problem of the week" which we had to do on our own, write up, and present. We also did things with statistics which were interesting because they can be applied to a lot of real-world issues that teens are interested in. We did a lot of writing (about how we did the problems, got the answers, etc, especially for "problem of the week") which made it more interesting for students like me who were more verbal. Every single math concept we learned was related to something in the "real world", or sometimes to a story.

The class was still challenging, but much more interesting that a regular textbook-based class would have been for me. The program was called the "Interactive Mathematics Program". I'm not sure if it still exists but maybe there are some resources out there about it.
posted by bearette at 6:16 PM on December 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

I wouldn't say I "hated" math, but I was definitely ambivalent about it until I realized that trig and linear algebra are everywhere in computer graphics and a lot of other places in programming/compsci. At that point I was very glad I'd had it. I'm not so sure about calculus -- you really need it for college-level physics, but that's not something that's relevant to a lot of people. I think the general trend is that "I don't care until it's useful to do things I want to do." Until then, it's something people are telling you to learn for arbitrary reasons that might be useful later, maybe.
posted by Alterscape at 6:27 PM on December 9, 2011

Wow. Small_ruminant, how did you pass a liberal arts major doing this?

In trig I had to go over my process before deciding my answer might be right. And over and over and over. A negative sign in the wrong place = F grade.

I found liberal arts essay exams a lot more forgiving- I had two or three sentences plus context to get my point across.

Math exams took less studying, but more precision.
posted by small_ruminant at 7:10 PM on December 9, 2011

I'm an artist and ***hated*** math in school. I thought it was a total waste of time. I saw no practical use for it.

Now I make huge artworks, some 40' long and really rely on math. It saves me money and time. A good percentage of my sketches are pure math. Many of my drawings are covered with it. Granted: it's the easy stuff: adding, measuring and basic geometry. However, I have a lot of people working with me and usually several interns--many of which have taken lots of advanced math--and this simple stuff often brings them to their knees.

I'm also a art professor and love teaching.

If I were a math teacher I'd bring interesting people into class to make a case for math. Don't bring the usual suspects--bring the musicians, writers, architects and glass blowers. Ignite student interest.

Furthermore, MATH CURRICULUMS NEED TO STOP BEING DESIGNED IN A WAY THAT IRRITATES STUDENTS. You're taking one of the most interesting subjects in the world [that's right!] and making it as boring as it possibly can be with all the silly quizzes, tests, repetitive [and SUPER BORING] homework. STOP DOING THAT.

Math teachers should give projects, not tests. Have students make things/figure out things/AND GET EXCITED ABOUT MATH. Stop competing with the Chinese on mindless number crunching and show how the left and the right side of the brain can work together.

Math education needs serious reconsideration. IT'S NOT ABOUT THE TESTS. It's about igniting student interest.

Math teachers of the world: unite and take over.
posted by Murray M at 7:34 PM on December 9, 2011 [4 favorites]

I was terrible at math in high school. We had a nasty little teacher who hardly made eye contact and was much more strict than the other teachers. I dreaded my hours in her class. And she was the only one who taught math in our little high school.

And then I went to college and predictably failed the first math course I took there. And had to take a remedial class that summer. WELL. My remedial teacher was a young grad student and he explained the concepts to us in detail. With the passion that a graduate student in mathematics could muster. We not only covered the materials that the small group of us had failed the semester before, but we read ahead. We did trig. We did calculus. We drew graphs and they were beautiful. We discovered concepts and tied them together.

And I continued on, with other teachers, and next semester took Cal 1, then Cal 2 then Cal 3 in ever-smaller classes, enjoying and acing each class.

That's all it took, a person who cared about his class, and about his topic, and who had the patience to walk us through the concepts instead of clocking in his hours.

Thank you Francois, wherever you are right now, for helping me bridge that trough, that summer.
posted by seawallrunner at 7:46 PM on December 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

I failed every math class starting from 4th grade onward. I either really failed but my teachers gave me a D after speaking to my parents to get me to the next grade or, I failed and had to go to summer school and even evening classes my senior year so I could graduate.

Yet, in college (first I went to a local community college), I got straight As in math. What happened?

I had a really good Algebra teacher and I reached the level where it wasn't arithmetic anymore (which I still cannot do) but, and I don't know if people who consider themselves good in math think of it this way, I realized that math was another language instead of about adding or subtracting and everything just clicked. I still had to study harder at it than anything else (everything else was really easy, too easy, for me), but it clicked. So, Algebra, Algebra II, Calculus, I got As. I even took Physics and got an A.

(At community college, I graduated Honors, went on to get a scholarship to a university and graduated with a 3.9).
posted by vivzan at 7:55 PM on December 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

pretty much nthing everyone else here - but elementary school math sucks, and sucks worse today than it did in my day. Emphasis on timed tests and rote tasks. However, it's hard to get around these boring building blocks.

I never did get good at trig or anything approaching engineering math, but I got really good at grasping math that could be used in business. Which doesn't seem hard until you run into dodos (some of whom could probably build bridges using only a slide rule) who can't figure out how quickly their bridge-building business will run out of money.

I got through the elementary school days because of the word problems. I lived for word problems. I think my high school teachers could have done a better job of turning me onto the uses of trig and calculus, and we need more teachers who can, because this country is falling behind on STEM (Science, Tech, Engineering, and Math) related degrees and qualified people to do those things. I'm part of the problem - I'm a marketing wienee who has to get people to tighten the bolts on websites - but we need more coders, engineers and physicists and fewer empty suits in jobs that mainly require that you look good in one.
posted by randomkeystrike at 9:27 PM on December 9, 2011

I became involved in visual effects and animation and suddenly needed math, particularly algebra. I got myself two Saxon books and went larval—going through them cover to cover, doing every problem, inside of ten days. One of the best uses of my time, ever.
posted by bz at 9:52 PM on December 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

I really started loving maths during my final year of high school. I leaned heavily towards the humanities at the time- I took four units of English, two of French, three of history, two of sociology and two units of mathematics.

Throughout the year, particularly in the lead up to the Higher School Certificate exams, I found maths very comforting compared to studying for the others. You worked on the problems using a known methodology, and either got the answer or didn't. There were no points lost for sophistication of language, no worrying about why I could only produce three or four page essays during the exams when other students were getting seven or eight. Just problems and solutions.
posted by PercyByssheShelley at 10:13 PM on December 9, 2011

This is me. I HATED math all through elementary and high school, and actually chose my college major partially to avoid having to take statistics. Now I'm the "data geek" on my work team - I regularly design and analyze statistical tests to evaluate our projects and love spending hours playing with our metrics to find interesting patterns.

I've tried to figure out why I hated math so much as a kid and why I love (some kinds of) work with numbers now. Here's what I've come up with - the way math was taught when I was a kid was so damn abstract. It was like it was in a different language and it was so hard for me to conceptualize how it related to real life. In fact, I really think a lot of the way it was taught discouraged us from thinking in concrete terms - so much emphasis was put on learning the concepts, but what good is it to memorize concepts if you have no idea what those concepts are meant to explain or illustrate?

Then I started a career where I experienced a lot of frustration over how success or impacts were measured. So much of this measurement was anecdotal, which drove me crazy. I work in a field where resources are limited and the efficacy of the work really does matter. I started talking to people who shared the same frustration and found out that there was a mini-data revolution happening in my field. I have always been a pretty analytical person, so I got really excited to learn that there were ways to objectively measure this stuff.

This led to me going to grad school, where I took several semesters of stats and (no joke!) fell in love with regression analysis, among other analytical tools.

So for me, the big thing was having something I was really passionate about that math could help me do better. I think a lot of educators know that kids want to know how this matters to their lives and the solution seems like it should be word problems with real-world examples. And yeah, that's better than nothing, but if you can make it something that actually matters to your students, I think that's gold.
posted by lunasol at 11:50 PM on December 9, 2011

I hated math until I got to Geometry, Trig, and Pre-Calc. Unfortunately, due to family circumstances, I didn't do well in Pre-Calc the two times I took it, and then stopped taking math. I did the best in Geometry, as all of a sudden it was PICTURES!, and I could relate to it.

Three things helped me get back into the swing of things:
1. I actually need it for my job.
2. I want to take at least one or two Computer Science classes. I will need math for that.
3. Actually getting my ADHD diagnosed and treated.

Currently, I'm brushing up on my math skills (Algebra and Trig) through Khan Academy, and the second/third time around? And with ADHD drugs? I'm really liking it. It makes sense now, and I'm finding it really fun and interesting to learn. I also do a lot of math puzzles for fun, such as Sudoku and Logic puzzles, and I just got a couple of Martin Gardner's math puzzle books.
posted by spinifex23 at 12:30 AM on December 10, 2011

There were a few things for me which made maths make sense, some of which look like they've been mentioned above:

1) Practical, real-world usage (I can't think of any examples unfortunately, but not just VAT and simple boring things)
2) Relationships between different aspects of maths which I'd previously thought completely separate and disparate. Learning one thing helped to make something else - previously considered incomprehensible - suddenly click.
3) Different teachers and/or teaching styles - having something explained differently really helped, particularly when it was a very patient teacher with a very small class.
4) Arriving at the realisation that maths wasn't scary - and although it may be hard, the mindset of 'oh, that's maths - I can't do it' was self-reinforcing.
5) Growing out of the school yard mentality that being good at something (or making an effort to learn, at least) meant that I'd be a target of ridicule/bullying.

Some of these things can be taught (or can be achieved in a classroom environment), whereas others are more private things which can probably only be arrived at in your own time.
posted by Chunder at 2:45 AM on December 10, 2011

So I'm going to answer this question in a different way. I have always loved mathematics, and my mother was a maths teacher who specialised in the less able classes. When we moved countries she still felt a need to teach, but instead of getting qualified again she opened a 'Kumon' centre.

For what it's worth, I'll note here that this wasn't a financially motivated decision - we had low costs and barely broke even - but she enjoyed it.

As the late teens child, who loved mathematics, whose mother ran a Kumon centre, I was cheap labour. I would mark work and tutor those kids who had problems with specific new problems.

While I was working there, I learned how the system worked. It took children who didn't like maths, or perhaps were simply very bad at maths (below their current class level and unable to catch up), and helped them catch up.

So to give an example. A child in her 9th year of schooling is enrolled. In her induction we are told that she needs help because school is getting to "hard" things like algebra and complicated things to do with fractions and the student can't cope.

So we give a standardised test or two, and we start her on her excersised. Kumon works through reptition. You do work in little booklets of 10 sheets, in levels that consist of 200 sheets. If you do 100 or so of these sheets (10 a day) with no errors under a timeframe, you progress to the next level.

Our poor student who is having problems understanding fractions and algebra is usually started on row division (3 + 7 = 10). Once she gets those fast enough and accurate enough, she goes on to row subtraction (7 - 3 = 4), and then on to column addition, subtraction, row multiplication, etc. This might take 4-5 months.

Parents get very angsty when their children are doing addition at home for extra homework to help with their f(x) = ax + b schoolwork.

Until their little darlings come home with higher marks. Our student has lifted their maths score from a D to a B. And eventually to an A.

This is a pattern I saw many times. Many Many Times. Being able to do 200 maths questions in a row as fast as you can, when the answers are clear as day in front of you and you can't write them fast enough (this is usual mode of work for a student who is just about to graduate to the next level of work in Kumon) gives you a totally new mindset. The feeling, "this is too hard, I hate this, maths is stupid" gets replaced with "where is the question, what technique do I use, where do I write the answer."

Many students who feel mathematics is too hard, and don't do well at it, are simply overcome with bad feelings about the subject and don't want apply themselves. I don't mean this is a universal thing, and I had a very selective sample here (students doing poorly enough that parents found the need to give them further aggressive extra-curricular work), but this is an example from my experience.
posted by Jerub at 6:21 AM on December 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

but later you stopped hating it. How did this happen?

I was weak in the basics -- never studied, never paid attention in class, right from elementary school -- so I had nothing to build on later. I didn't fail but I just scraped by. I had nothing you would call success, nothing to feel good about. I couldn't fake it like I could fake it in other courses: in math, you either knew the rules or you didn't, and I didn't, so I was always struggling.

When I took a university course that started me from scratch, I got a second chance to learn what I was supposed to have learned a long time earlier when I was just coasting. Then I succeeded, enjoyed succeeding, and changed from just scraping by to getting top marks.

If you want to rescue mathematics haters, you need to take them right back to the beginning and make sure they know the real basics: addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, fractions, etc. Test for who needs such help, then give it to them, give them credit for the extra work they might need, and make sure they feel like they've finally succeeded, finally beaten the mathematics game.

That reboot course also did something my previous teachers had not: we were tested at the end of every lesson, just three questions, but that was enough to make sure we attended class, listened in class, and were ready for the test at the end of the class.

(Also, I agree with the comment about discrete math.)
posted by pracowity at 12:34 PM on December 10, 2011

I stopped having the wretched Chicago math curriculum shoved down my throat, and learned to actually use my brain.

Then, I had a wonderful, brilliant teacher who didn't even use a book, much less adhere to a curriculum. (He would multiply two six or seven figure numbers on the board, and he would right the answer starting at the left. I couldn't beat him with a calculator. This still blows my mind.)
posted by Leta at 12:51 PM on December 10, 2011

Your students may also enjoy the work of Vi Hart. (Link is to her website).
posted by oceano at 2:39 PM on December 10, 2011

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