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Why is it so difficult to learn math?

Michael Crow, President of Arizona State University

The language is harsh. In fact, it is infinitely more difficult and more complicated than math. And yet almost every young child can learn and master language.

Why is math so overwhelming for so many students? And how high is the price to pay for having so many math-terrified or even math-illiterate people in our society? Too high, especially since the ability to grasp the data and carry out advanced work that involves math is becoming increasingly important to both citizens and job seekers.

It often starts with the math teaching problem in the summary. This falls short of the remarkable amount of mathematical knowledge that human beings already possess. We know how to solve unknowns, for example. That is algebra. We are also able to think in terms of three dimensional spaces, that is geometry and trigonometry. So this mathematical language is the analytical expression in the way we already think.

But how many of us feel incapable, rather than poorly taught or sent down the wrong path, when faced with the rigors of mathematics? How many children who have struggled to understand mathematical concepts, who lacked the necessary toolbox, were led to feel stupid, even degraded?

Every step along the way, as math education becomes more abstract and complex, it loses more and more students. What may have started out as genuine curiosity fades over time.

Compare it to spoken or written language. When a mistake is made, a teacher corrects the part that is wrong. And then continue. With math, if you don’t have the correct result, they are treated as if they were wrong. And, as one mistake after another accumulates, too many students just give up: I can’t do math.

The Barbie doll talking about the ’90s – “math class is tough” – was not only offensive. This self-destructive attitude is reinforced.

But math is not about intelligence. It is a language that many people never learn, often because the educational process falls short of the number of ways a given person can come up with a given solution.

That is not a failure of children to learn. That is a teaching failure. It’s a failure of the school. We should not blame the student. (These are the children, after all.)

Part of the challenge is identifying the gaps in knowledge, to clarify that the challenge is not simply that a student doesn’t understand algebra or trigonometry or whatever. There may be a particular underlying concept that gets in the way of going forward in math, as well as other fields like social science or engineering.

By going back and working through what they don’t know, we can break down the barriers that discourage students from pursuing fields and careers in which mathematical knowledge is an entry point and inaccessible if they struggle with fundamental concepts of mathematics.

Overcoming this block requires going beyond broad industrialized education and into individualized and personalized learning that enables students to find their own path in. Show me a thousand students and I am going to show a thousand different avenues that could be taken to achieve math success. Except for that fraction of students who cling to math yet shows up, most may have difficulty understanding when instruction fails to provide individualized learning.

With new digital technologies and a massive amount of data collection and analysis, we have the ability to help students identify essential concepts that they do not understand. We have data on all students who solve a particular math problem and those who could not solve it. We also have data on the problems they were able to solve before that.

Just as a student recognizes that they are struggling with, for example, negative number concepts, they can go back and master the material to fill in the gaps that allow them to go forward. And when they come to another difficult situation? They can jump into problems that allow them to master that concept. The hope is that as they progress, their interest and enthusiasm increases, further fueling their advancement.

We are pursuing this approach at the university level. We are also trying to incorporate this approach into the high school, middle school, and elementary levels. This will make it possible for an increasing number of students to obtain degrees and careers that they never thought they had the tools or the ability to master.

In the next few years, that mentality, passed on from the failure of mathematics teaching, should decrease. If we can be successful in breaking down the assumption that there is something wrong with a 3rd grader who cannot learn math – rather than something wrong with the teaching process – then we can expect new generations of math citizens – reading and to write. Whichever career they choose, they will be more confident and better able to understand and contribute to an increasingly complex, data-driven world.

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