We’re teaching math wrong

Everyone learns math, but most don’t like it. Why?

If we don’t change how we teach math, the resentment of the subject will just continue to grow. PHOTO: Jeswin Thomas / Unsplash

By: Jacob Mattie, Peak Associate

Math is among the most common topics in education worldwide, yet it is a favoured subject of complaint among students. Math slander is common in advertisements, the media, and even in conversations (where lack of mathematical ability can sometimes seem like a point of pride). 

Why is this?

Either there is some genuine fault in the subject that renders it widely inaccessible — which is doubtful, given how old and widely-spread mathematics have been throughout history — or there is some flaw in how it is currently being taught.

I am convinced that it is the latter.  

Elementary, middle, and high schools teach addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, as well as their extensions (hello exponents and logarithms). A few detours into geometry and graphs seem to round out the knowledge, but by and large, math education primarily focuses on attaining that “holy grail” of mathematics: calculus. Here lies the problem. 

While there is value in calculus, it’s far from representative of math as a field. 3D animation and CAD (computer-aided design) software are built entirely on linear algebra, which is about as separate from calculus as painting is from music (although both fall under the umbrella term of “art”). Formal logic is another topic which, despite being the subject of some people’s entire lives of study, is lucky to get a week’s practice in introductory math courses. 

Formal logic, or learning how to accurately phrase a question, reduces a concept to its bare essentials and recognizes when said essentials are missing. These are pillars of mathematics typically neglected in favour of getting just a bit more practice with the quotient rule (finding the derivative of a function that is the ratio of two different functions). 

The inability of our number system to divide by zero is generally disregarded under a statement of “just trust me,” ignoring the entire field of number theory which gives a solid explanation as to why this is so. 

It’s no surprise students become jaded and frustrated with math. We spend too much time working towards an arbitrary goal and forget about the diversity of math as a topic. Pages of tedious worksheets and pressure to memorize formulae make it difficult to appreciate the material, and a lack of perspective squashes any interest that may have remained. I make a plea that we slow down and teach the full breadth of math at an introductory level first. 

There is so much more to math than computation and calculus, and until our current curriculums reflect this, mathematic vitriol and apathy will continue to grow.