Mathematics, Why No One Likes It, and What Can Be Done

by Handsome Matt

“When Will I Use This In The Real World?”

The most dreaded question of any Math teachers life. It is a question that cannot be answered when the mathematical endeavors move beyond basic arithmetic and small components of geometry and into the higher level of mathematics. Unless that junior high student is going to go on to be an accountant or rocket scientist, there is little need for calculus.

The question cannot be answered, not because there is no answer, but because of the way mathematics is taught.

Math has been called the “universal language” not because everything, everywhere understands math as we understand it. Quite the contrary, Binary and Hexadecimal number systems are strange and intimidating to anyone raised on the numbers zero through nine. But as binary and hexadecimal can show, they are number systems born out of a need to translate or understand data.

Math is the universal language because it allows an explanation to made of, order to be imposed on, and understanding to develop from seemingly random  information. Every mathematical formula, law, rule, and function was born out of a need to explain what was occurring. From the seemingly lowest level of adding one apple and one apple to the highest concepts of thermodynamics; all of it was born out of the need to explain a phenomena. In this framework, all math from adding onward has a real world connection.

When math is taught, it is taught backwards. First the formula is given, then it is memorized through torturous repetition, and then the student moves on. Occasionally a word problem or two is included, something generic and inapplicable, or a brightly colored side note talks of some “real world connection.” By and large, though math is a problem to be solved. Until the testing begins. And students across the world turn in page after page of mental vomit. The entire system is designed to memorize concepts and is utterly devoid of any real world application. And since each equation is presented as an obstacle to be overcome, it is no surprise that the homework is viewed as such also. It is no surprise then, why so few students are willing to “do” math, let alone “do” math well.

What if a more worldly method was used? Perhaps the data and scenarios that lead to the development of a certain formula were presented first. How then is this data to be interpreted, understood and explained? The student would then embark on the same path of discovery that lead to every mathematical concept from the number line, to infinity, to compounded interest to every component of Math. The real world connections are there, in black and white numbers. Students would then understand that mathematics is not an end all subject, but it is the lens through which a large portion of our day to day world operates.

Instead of the problem, Math becomes the solution.