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Kids Hating Maths

Monday morning’s inbox had four distinct, unrelated emails waiting for me from parents concerned about their child’s relationship with Maths. Coincidence? This was odd because these were from parents from different countries, with children of different ages and in different stages in their high school careers in different programs doing different things (think IB, AP, A-levels, country-specific curricula, …). What was going on, I asked myself?

And, why are some kids just hating Maths so much?

Sure, not all students hate Maths. I have several students who love it. But, the Maths-hater is very common—too common—and comes in various forms. It’s hard to nail down who is going to hate Maths and why.

Here are some of the questions I got this morning:

“Lucy is terrible at Maths! Should she avoid Chemistry?” No.

“Maths makes Cindi very anxious. The IB programme will be terrible for her. We went to get a diagnostic on what could be the problem.” Probably not something an expensive “test” can give you really good answers to is my initial thinking.

“Li refuses to take Maths next year. It’s so horrible I even hate Maths. I’m signing him up for the easiest level.” Don’t do that. We need to discuss this in depth.

“Maths is Zandan’s biggest nightmare. He gets tuition but it’s not enough. What could the problem be?” Why label this as a problem?

The irony is that I was speaking with a former colleague and good friend of mine two weeks ago about Maths. It came up at random. She mentioned drawing up an Excel sheet and I told her I really don’t like Excel. At all. Then she told me she loves Maths and loves Excel. I actually quite liked Maths—I had to work my tail off to do well in it, but I liked it. And, I had to take it as a pre-med student. But, I hate Excel. (Any family I work with will tell you I draw up the most infantile, ugly, terrible Excel sheets. I digress.)

So, my friend, Charlotte, and I started talking about Maths. I said, “You really love it, don’t you? Have you always?” She said, “Listen, my Mom used to volunteer teaching 5-year olds Maths when I was growing up. Why? Because she always believed that if a child grew up knowing and understading and liking Maths, she would be more confident in herself all-around.”

I liked that, and I wondered, what makes a child or a student like Maths—or hate it? Is there something beyond the just “I like broccoli” vs. “I hate broccoli” that’s inside of us? Of course there is. And, of course it’s not going to be figured out in one diagnostic test.

So, I’ve asked my dear friend Robyn, teacher of Maths, to opine. Robyn and I met when we were in 2nd grade. She teaches Maths in North Carolina. Totally different socio-economics and culture than my students, but teaching Maths—and learning it—is universal. I’ll let her talk to us:

1. Robyn, tell us first where you teach, what you teach, and who your students are.

I teach math in North Carolina. My students are middle school grade level (grades 6-8). They are from mostly low-income families (over 60% are on free or reduced lunch). My students are about 12-13 years old.

2. Why do you teach Maths?

I teach math for several reasons:

1) It is all around you…everyday! Whether it is gas prices, interest rates, budgeting, or taxes, we must work with math and numbers. We need to understand how it works and how it works together.

2) Math teaches you about steps and how to do things in life. For example, let’s say you want to buy a house. You don’t just wake up one day and go buy a house. You have steps. Those steps include finding a house, getting pre-approved on a mortgage, having the home inspected, insurance, and closing. You go through steps from A to B to C, etc. You can’t just go from A to Z. Some students do not like to do steps because it takes too long. However, they find that if they take the time to write out the steps they are lead to the solution. If they skip steps or fail to write them down…they usually make a mistake.

Another way to apply math is when you are looking to go to college. How long do you plan the process for college (for me it was about a year)? I had to figure out where I wanted to go, attend college fairs, research, visit, apply to the colleges, write essays, make a decision, apply for financial aid, register, orientation, etc. You don’t just wake up one day and go to college. There are a lot of steps you go through to reach your solution. Just like in math…it’s a process.

3) To me, math is a puzzle that needs to be solved. I like to challenge my brain and think through steps. Everyone thinks differently, so there may be more than one way to achieve the solution but it about the process and steps.

3. Think of your kids or one of your kids who hates Maths. How do you help him/her learn to “like” or appreciate Maths?

First, students have to be good at reading/comprehension, this helps to figure out what the question is truly asking. Second, you have to know formulas (if applicable) and know how to apply them. You have to extract the information and apply what is needed in steps. I have many students who have told me that for the first time in their school career they like or love math. Why? As a teacher I make it fun! I make it relevant to life. I’m honest with my kids. I teach with humor and that is universal with students. All kids, regardless of gender, race, ethnicity…love to laugh. You have to banter with them. I push them outside their comfort zone and they embrace it with laughter.

4. Why do you think some kids just hate Maths?

Simply put…they do not see how math is useful in everyday life. They may not have basic math skills and therefore do not make connections in math that lead to patterns or understanding.

And, as a parent, what is your attitude about math? Do you love it? Hate it? Do you openly say “I”m bad at math”. I had a parent walk in on back to school night and right in front of their child they announced “My son is not good in math”. I had another parent say “I’m terrible at math”. Think about what that child hears! Children emulate their parents and form opinions from what you say about yourself and what you say about them.

Also, let’s face it, some students are lazy. They may sound harsh but they don’t want to take the time to work steps that lead to a solution. They rush and don’t write steps.

5. What could parents be doing to help their kids “embrace”—perhaps a bit too dramatic or eager, how about “learn to accept”—Maths?

As a parent you need to talk with them everyday about how you use math. You need to make sure your attitude is a positive one about math. Even if you don’t “love” math, you have a healthy respect. There are many math sites that show steps. Help your kids to work the solution and show them steps. This takes a lot of repetition and patience, but do not let your child take the easy road.

My students complain that math is hard and I tell them “I never got the memo that life was easy”. Can you say life has been easy for you? You are helping them to persevere when they face adversity. You are helping them to figure out life and to make decisions with steps. They have to think through to a solution. Math isn’t just about solving a math problem but it is about solving problems in life.

6. Based on my anecdote above, anything else you can share with us about teaching and learning Maths from your perspective?

No student is bad at math, some students just have to work harder than others.

Parental attitude is key. Help your child. Find a tutor if necessary but do not let them take the easy road with lower level classes or less rigor. In the end, you child will thank you for pushing them.

Robyn, thank you so much for enlightening us. Now there’s a passionate educator! I wish we got the memo that you would be teaching all of my students Maths…!

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