Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

We need to change the way we teach math

Unlearning math is the only way to learn it
Ana Pietrewicz / Daily Collegian

I’m a math major. Yep, that’s right. No, I’m not a masochist, but it definitely hurts a lot right now. Focusing on mathematics in my undergraduate career has forced me to reflect upon my mathematics education from day one. Naturally, the way I’ve been taught math has drastically transformed from counting cookies to a beast with random symbols and letters. But for me, one thing has remained a constant: math just isn’t taught right, especially in the U.S.

In this case, it all starts with the mentality as opposed to the actual quality of content itself (something I’ll get into later). The common trope of “only really smart people can do math” is fallacious and dangerous. It is both implicitly and explicitly weaved into the fiber of modern pedagogy, planting seeds of doubt and insecurity in students’ minds. Instead of trying to work harder and improve, students are discouraged when they see that a select few students are chosen for “gifted and talented programs” or receiving consistent praise and adulation.

The moment you teach something as inherent, instead of capable of being acquired, you allow the seeds of inequality to flourish. At a young age, students shouldn’t have a preconceived notion that certain students are strictly more intelligent than them or strictly less intelligent than them; this idea then predicates hierarchies in the social, professional and economic spheres of society.

Concurrently, it is also important to preface that the normal distribution is a very real thing. There are people who are poorer, people who are wealthier, higher IQ, lower IQ, taller, shorter–you get the gist. And yes, students who are more intelligent and perform better in the classroom should be rewarded for their efforts, but at a young age it is important to ensure that each student has an equal chance at participating and succeeding in a classroom environment. Kids learn fast, so they will inevitably come to terms with these contradictions.

These demarcations and divisions eventually cause issues with math education itself. Only in the U.S. do we separate mathematics into a gazillion separate classes, e.g., Algebra II, Pre-Calculus, Trigonometry, etc. The issue here is when students are placed into different tracks, they run the risk of losing knowledge in other areas of mathematics; this is most definitely a serious shortcoming because mathematics is a highly symbiotic field where all the puzzle pieces are essential. Beyond mathematics, it’s important to have a holistic understanding of any subject you learn in school, at least until the collegiate level.

The unfortunate truth is that American math education propagates more than just a poor understanding of math; it creates far-reaching disparities that cause social ingroups at all levels of social strata. We need to create a widespread shift in educators’ perception of math education. It’s more about saying and doing the right thing rather than allocating millions of dollars towards resources. We need to tell every single child they are capable of doing well and ensure each classroom environment is positive and conducive towards growth and learning rather than trepidation and fear of failure.

Most of the people reading this have probably been through the K-12 system and know what it’s like to study math compulsorily for 12 years or so. The question is, what can college students do to ensure the forthcoming generations don’t experience the same frailties and fallacies we experienced? Again, it is vital for us to start all conversations at the dinner table. Simply talking to our younger siblings, cousins or whoever is more than enough. The moment we show children that they can succeed–that they don’t need any supernatural ability–is the moment we create a more equal and prosperous society.

Anay Contractor can be reached at [email protected].

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    Mat BrownMar 23, 2022 at 2:08 pm

    Everyone who isn’t brain damaged can learn math if they work at it.
    Sometimes us teachers slow them down.
    Math is powerful…so powerful people don’t want everyone to understand it.
    That’s why we were told that girls and poor people (those that test lower) can’t learn it.
    Mat Brown ‘58