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Ellen Siminoff

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Making Math More Than a Numbers Game

Posted: 11/17/11 07:17 PM ET

Many non-engineers/computer programmers have pretty dismal recollections of math class. They recall having recurring nightmares of negative exponents, the Pythagorean Theorem and coordinate geometry. The letter x was the enemy, and even he wasn't nearly as bad as the evil math overlord, f(x).

Of course, the manner in which someone approaches math depends upon the individual. Some non-mathletes are word wizards and excel in English while others struggle with numbers; and still others can barely spell their own names. Instead, they live for solving proofs.

But why is that the case? As far as required studies go, math really shouldn't be such an onerous and forbidding mountain to climb. Students are not simply memorizing conjugations by rote so that they can later regurgitate the answers. They are not researching a subject that has no relevance. Rather, they are taking the rules which they have learned and they are applying them (along with a sprinkling of logical reasoning) to decipher and solve problems, many of which contain images. Sounds fun, doesn't it? Almost like a game. And yet...

The friction in the system is MathoPhobia, a fear of the new, the unconquered, the... numeric. Math is a new language to students. As engaging as math can be, many students feel lost -- they stare at a page full of unfamiliar symbols and graphs chock-full of seemingly random letters and numbers and they become quickly overwhelmed. It's not that the concepts are, at their root, all that difficult to comprehend and apply. The problem is that many students feel disoriented; they find themselves disconnected from the Darth Vader-y math material because it isn't speaking their language. They don't love the numbers so the numbers don't love them back.

Fortunately, a solution exists. It lies in the simplicity of 2n+2n and the evolution of 4n. We'll never be able to get away from complex expressions and the wide array of symbols and terminology that go with the territory -- there's quite simply no better way to learn and deal with the concepts than by using this shorthand -- but we can make it more accessible and easier to grasp. The occasional "real life" parallel isn't going to cut it -- students must understand at all times precisely what it is that they are learning (not just a list of rules that lead to the correct solutions), what each variable or process might actually represent, what good could come out of arriving at a desired outcome and how all of this may affect their own lives in the grand scheme of things.

Math matters. How many students can quote Aaron Rodgers' completion statistics and then blank when they have to find what percentage x is of y? How many students can recognize Shaun White's Double McTwist 1260 but go into a cold sweat when asked a rotation question on the SAT?

Making math matter may seem like a lot of extra work. Teachers are pressed for time in the classroom, and the prospect of deconstructing each branch of mathematics (and its subsets) in order to cater to a student's state of confusion may appear to be an impossible goal. However, many students fall behind in math early and never catch up (and this is one unforgiving "home'" subject -- if the foundation that was laid is creaky, some day the floor on story 2 or 3 caves in). Taking the time to lay flesh on the bones of things and imbue earned confidence in each student will almost assuredly pay rich dividends. If the student can "speak math," the numeric Code of Hammurabi is unearthed and the otherwise garbled texts suddenly come alive. Teachers can then teach. A virtuous cycle is born.