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Hearing From the Other 90%!

Sometime ago on the Encouraging Mathematical Thinking listserve, David Adams wrote: "I think that the conservative estimate is that >90% of the population would say that they are not good at mathematics! What a success rate! Is there any other subject that engenders such a sense of failure? People judge their competence by what they can't do rather than by what they can do!"

Wow! Conservative estimate? And, how does the public explain this?

So, on a Google whim, I posed the question: How many people do poorly in mathematics? The following is a collection of reader responses from the website AskMetaFilter:

  • Obnoxious, narrow-minded, impatient math teachers is what. Most people get burned and scarred for life.
  • Because it is abstract. Because it is dry. Because it makes your brain hurt. And although math can be beautiful, and some people love it, math contains no love or emotion, as do art or music or literature.
  • Math and science in schools are taught in a very results-oriented way: it's about finding or knowing the right answer, not about ways of viewing the world or processes for finding and testing ideas. This means that people associate math and science with being told they are wrong (and therefore "I'm bad at math" or "science is hard").
  • Uh, I studied history in college and 75% of people I tell that say, "Ohh, I hated history," or "I suck at history." On the other hand, people who study math/science/engineering/etc. seem to get that response less often. They usually get more of an, "Oh wow, that's impressive," type answer.
  • Math doesn't have big scary teeth. Math teachers often do. Really. I've asked a lot of stupid questins in my student days. I've never got a withering eye-rolling "Jeez what an idiot look" from any teacher - except a math teacher.
  • I think the reason that so many people hate math is because it can be very unforgiving. When coupled with sub-par teachers, the unforgiving nature of math can be extremely discouraging. If you're writing an essay, a misspelled word or a poorly constructed sentence in the first paragraph doesn't ruin the whole paper. Granted, if you're mistaken about a broad general idea, then that might be a problem, but a tiny mistake is completely irrelevant in the face of the larger work. If you make an early mistake in a math problem, however, all of your work can become incomprehensible. In order to discover what went wrong, you have to start over and carefully comb over the problem to find out where you reversed a sign, or mistook one value for another, or made a simple arithmetical error.
  • I dislike math because there is no wiggle room. I dislike math because of the terms "signed numbers" and "integers." Who the hell thought these up, and why? I dislike math because I resent the fact that it used to be called arithmetic, but now it's called "Math"; short and nasty. And most of all, I hate hate hate the phrase, "You do the math!"
  • The problem is fundamentally circular with marginal teachers creating discouraged students, from which come the next generation of marginal teachers. It is interesting that other parts of the world do not have this problem, suggesting a primary cultural malfunction.
These are just a sample from a list that went on for about 65 printed pages. It was an interesting read...if you got the time, try it. Also, I never even got to the other Google-suggested responses. One was enough!

I close with a response from Nadise:" I hate math and science. I don't understand them, and they feel completely inaccessible to me. Here's my stab at explaining all the reasons why:

  1. Schools...teach science and math to the tests. There didn't seem to be passion in the subjects even for my teachers; it was all about memorizing facts that appeared arbitrary to me. No sense of wonder or puzzle-and-solve. Not even an organized system of logic that I could discern, grasp, and then rely on.
  2. It's binary. Either you're right or you're wrong. I'm sure this isn't the case when you get to the more advanced, theoretical levels of either math or science, but it takes many years of that binary experience before you're ready to debate theory. So neither subject felt creative in the least.
  3. I could never tell how to change my study techniques in order to improve. Math and science were completely counter-intuitive to me, and I could never "get it". The only answer I ever got when I asked teachers and adults how to approach learning it was practice. Well, if you do the same thing over and over, you'll get the same result over and over. If that result is failure, that's not fun.
  4. Plus, someone once decided I was no good at math or science, and made the mistake of telling me that. From then on out, I'm sure part of it was confirmation bias. I have no idea who it was, or how early, but judging by the tip chart I keep in my wallet, it was way back in the basics years.
So, back to David Adams and his original claim, he closed with the words: "Now I will get off my soapbox!"