Math is not fun!

I just completed writing my comments below for an assignment in my curricula and instruction course in my ed program.  I drank way too much tea and coffee Monday so I have not been able to get to sleep yet…so at least I am catching up on my homework!

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Both of these readings tie into my statement last week in class that “math is not fun.” I did not explain my reasoning clear enough then primarily since I had just finished one of the worst days at my placement of the entire school year. Also, the social justice activity we just finished motivated me and resonated with meaningful and enlightening experience students might appreciate about one aspect of math were they to do the same, or similar, exercise.

So, where am I going? In “What’s Math Got to Do with It?” Boaler states, “I would pity those boys and girls that who did not conform to the ways of thinking and working that were typical for their gender but were forced to be taught via a distorted version of mathematics that was entirely abstract or entirely based in the real world” (Boaler, 2008, p. 137).  She goes on to say that “If mathematics teaching included opportunities for discussion of concepts, for depth of understanding, and for connecting between mathematical concepts, then it would be more equitable and good [interpreted broadly to mean: interesting, educational, and maybe even fun] for both sexes, and it would give a more accurate depiction of mathematics as it is practiced in high-level courses and professions.”

Boaler also states, “Among students who experience traditional math classes, one of the biggest complaints (and surely the most reasonable) is that the classes are always the same. The monotony causes disaffection; it also means that students only learn to work as they have in class – using procedures that have just been shown to them” (Boaler, 2008, p. 158).  That is one of the best descriptions of a “BORING (aka not so fun)” environment, or experience, that I have read.

Thus, since most math classes have been, and continue to be, taught using direct instruction, emphasizing coverage (of curricula, standards, etc.) over understanding, leaving little to no time for discussions of why, not experimenting with multiple methods using trial and error, overemphasizing procedural knowledge (usually only one way), not building problem-solving skills, and hence, self-confidence, and removing students from the center of learning, or having a voice in their learning, MATH IS NOT FUN!

Also, while math can be fun, in the “let’s play a game” sense, that is not what I believe most students mean when they say “math is fun,” and I hope that is not the message / expectation we should communicate to all students, some maybe, but not all. Using this narrow sense of fun, some math can be “fun.” However, I believe when students say they thought the math they experienced was fun, they mean they enjoyed being able to solve the puzzle that lay in front of them, which with traditional environments most likely would have gone unsolved, since it would seem hopeless that it could be solved since only one method is likely shown, with little to no explanation of the why, how, when, and where driving method choice.

Hope this clears up any confusion I may have created with my declaration last week.

And on the gender front, which I mostly skipped over above, I have never subscribed to the boys are better than girls thinking with respect to knowledge / smarts / IQ / thinking ability, or vice versa, or heard or seen that thinking in my immediate ife experiences; I likely was blind to it, or so wrapped up in myself, I was ignorant of the challenges foisted upon others.  I think it is a shame people are treated the way they are if they differ from the “majority” view and hope over time, those that do think that way recognize their mistakes. For what it’s worth, my wife, a Latina, has a degree in math, of which I never wanted, nor think I would have excelled at since I struggle with abstract math, but do well with applied math.  My challenge with abstract math could easily be a byproduct of how I was taught math as well.

Lastly, my eldest son, who is a 7th grader, HATES math. I blame the way math is traditionally taught where the unforgivingness of math, if a “minor” mistake is made, destroys any interest in it students might have since no one wants to experience “failure,” over and over; so little things get in the way of students experiencing the richness, the beauty, and the big picture of math.

My question: How best can we STOP teaching students in ways that bores them to tears and kills any interest they have in math?

We need to revise the nation’s mathematics curricula and pedagogy from pre-school through high school ASAP if we ever expect to expand our nation’s intellectual base to start grappling with the daunting problems facing the world with respect to population growth, global weather changes, limitations of carbon-based fuels, etc. And the common core standards sweeping the nation are too small of a step to make a significant enough impact.

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About Dave aka Mr. Math Teacher

Secondary math teacher teaching math intervention, algebra 1, honors precalculus, and AP Calculus AB. I spent 25 years in high tech in engineering, marketing, sales and business development roles in the satellite communications, GPS, semiconductor, and wireless industries. I am awed by the potential in our nation's youth and I hope to instill in them the passion to improve our world at local, state, national, and global levels.
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12 Responses to Math is not fun!

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Math is not fun! | Reflections of a Math Teacher Candidate -- Topsy.com

  2. Cal says:

    How best can we STOP teaching students in ways that bores them to tears and kills any interest they have in math?

    See, I would argue that the answer is “We can’t”. Not unless we change the objective entirely. For one thing, I don’t think you give enough credit to aptitude. For the kids at the top of the math food chain, math is often fun.

    And why do we always demand that math be fun? When did you last hear of someone demanding reading James Joyce or John Donne should be fun? Who ever said that understanding the economic outcome of Jackson killing the Bank was fun to learn about?

    There’s no reason why math per se should be fun, and I think that’s an unrealistic expectation.

    If, instead we want to turn math into the equivalent of “English lite”, where kids read newspapers or Harry Potter and write essays about it, then yes, indeed, we could make math fun. And I would argue that this is an excellent way to impart math skills to kids who aren’t good at math.

    But that would be what we do to kids who aren’t capable of advanced math–algebra, geometry, trig, and calculus. We should be very careful about who we determine isn’t capable of it–and I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t want your son to be considered one of those students.

    Some things are supposed to be hard. For many people, the intellectually challenging subject they will take on in high school is advanced math. So what if they hate it, if they are challenged and understand what it is like to take on something demanding and hard?

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    • Agree completely that the expectation should NOT be all math is fun; it is unrealistic and unnecessary. However, I was getting the distinct impression over the course of my program that math is fun, or needed to be shown as fun, that set me off last week once the right catalyst came along…and yes, some students, not necessarily just the top students, find SOME math fun, maybe much math fun. I seriously doubt any student finds ALL math fun, especially as it is traditionally taught in school, which is the main point of my thesis.

      From my post, “Also, while math can be fun, in the “let’s play a game” sense, that is not what I believe most students mean when they say “math is fun,” and I hope that is not the message / expectation we should communicate to all students, some maybe, but not all. Using this narrow sense of fun, some math can be “fun.””

      Regarding your change the objective point, as well as academic rigor point, I concur. Those are posts for a later date! For now, see my comment, in reply to another’s comment, that I just made on ‘change’ and ‘rigor’ in my post “Edufads from Educrats.” While not directly related to curricular change, it does speak to systemic ed change that is needed.

      Lastly, your point about being very careful who is determined not to be capable of advanced math, I completely agree. That is such a difficult assessment since nearly anyone could be capable of advanced math given significant, intensive support. However, the question there is over what amount of time, and at what expense? Does the system contort itself to the student, or the student to the system, or some hybrid of the two? I think a hybrid approach is necessary, and likely multiple hybrids since three shoe sizes do not accommodate the vast variety of feet present in the world. This is more fodder for another post…

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  3. Cal says:

    Oh, and sorry for the “too much tea and coffee” problem!

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  4. dwees says:

    I have taught calculus in ways which make learning calculus fun. I hate to say it, but part of the problem is the unimaginative and lazy ways some math teachers approach their profession.

    You can teach highly complex topics using inquiry, and problem based learning which for students is highly engaging and even fun. You just have to be willing to put some effort into learning how to do this.

    And yes, if you do more “fun” problem solving and guided inquiry in your classes, students will tolerate lectures more easily, mostly because class-long lectures will stop being the norm, and start being a change of pace.

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  5. Cal says:

    I hate to say it, but part of the problem is the unimaginative and lazy ways some math teachers approach their profession.

    Oh, don’t be silly. You looooooove saying it. It makes you feel superior!

    If you are teaching calculus, you are teaching kids at the top of the food chain and, as I observed, those kids often find math fun. Congratulating yourself for teaching them that math is fun is a bit like a wealthy parent taking credit for their son getting into Harvard–I’m sure you had something to do with it, but there’s such a thing as selection bias.

    If, on the other hand, you have taught algebra students who are really horrible at math, had zero incentive to succeed, began with below basic skills and ended testing at basic or higher and also thought you made math fun, then by all means go ahead and rebuke those who say it’s impossible and tell them what lousy teachers they are.

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  6. Pingback: Motivating and Empowering Students | Outa Tha Box

  7. Pingback: Timed Tests and the Development of Math Anxiety | Reflections of a Second-career Math Teacher

  8. xiousgeonz says:

    There are good, mediocre and bad teachers who teach math ‘traditionally.’ Direct instruction can (rather readily) be a critical part of teaching that emphasizes understanding. It’s not often done, though.
    On the other hand, most of the “not so traditional” teaching I’ve seen lead to the top 5% of the students gaining the understanding, and the 40% underneath that figuring out which rote procedures that look like understanding the teacher is looking for, and then 55% of the class muddling through and …the overwhelming majority of them knowing that math is not fun, believing that understanding is really, really important — but beyond their abilities, so they’d better memorize what they can.
    Now, if you’re actually *teaching* that understanding, hats off to you.

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  9. Pingback: Playing Angry Birds is not “Using Mathematical Thinking” | Reflections of a Second-career Math Teacher

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