After 16 years as an educational consultant, one of the most often heard phrases that makes me cringe is, "I hate math!". This is generally followed by, "I'm just not a math person." Students from ages 6-18 say it, and it comes from both girls and boys. Why do our students today "HATE" math so much? It doesn't have to be this way. I hate that they hate math!
Students hate math for three reasons: 1) They are intimidated by math. 2) No one has taken the time to help build their self-confidence in this subject. 3) Math is processed very differently by male and female brains which can account for differences in conceptual understanding. I believe loving or hating math is a nature AND nurture issue.
While all of these factors carry equal weight, #1 and #2 can be attributed to the nurture side of the learning coin. Studies have shown that success in math is due in small amount to IQ (nature); it is more often than not due to practice, persistence, and effort (nurture). Try these strategies to help improve your child's perception of math, and his or her ability to master the discipline. Making a few small changes in how you approach math at home can make a marked difference in your child's quantitative aptitude.
• Parents, even if you are intimidated by math and do not feel it is a strength, try to avoid phrases like "I too am not a math person," "It's in the genes to not be good at math," or "Don't worry, you will never use Algebra/Geometry/Fractions/etc in real life -- just get through it." The more value you place on mastering math, the less of an "out" your child has to be intimidated by it. Stop providing him/her with excuses, and understand that your words and attitude can undermine your child's math prowess!
• The fundamental math years occur between grades 3-6, so do not let any conceptual gaps slide during these years. If summer school or math tutoring can fill in those gaps and solidify the math foundation, DO IT during these years.
• How do you know there are math gaps? Low grades, low standardized test scores in math, and teacher input are all valuable barometers.
• The most fundamental math concepts are: long multiplication and long division, decimals, fractions, percents, discount/tax/tip/interest problems, ratios, proportions, and all the associated word problems to these concepts. From these, Algebra, Geometry, Trig, etc. are all derived.
• Find your student a math champion and advocate. Do not expect your student's teacher to provide the needed extra math time. They are generally too overwhelmed and busy with 30+ students. Find a tutor, mentor, family member, etc. who can be your student's "go-to" math helper.
• Make math real and include it in your daily family life. Cooking, shopping, negotiating allowances, comparing sports teams' statistics, making investments, calculating percent increases in gas prices, making travel plans and calculating exchange rates, etc. all present learning opportunities for real life math. Involve your student in these activities.
• Have a 'no calculator" zone. Put down the iPhone when calculating a tip at dinner--calculate it yourself and with your child. Students learn by watching you, so every time you look for a way out of doing the math, you are teaching them to do the same. Math-lazy parents breed math-lazy students.
• Utilize online math games and software often -- especially during the summer months. Every math teacher I know has a favorite math site or program to recommend to students. Find out your teacher's favorite site and incorporate it into your child's computer time. Since students today are so technologically savvy, utilize their strength in the tech realm and include math learning in their online repertoire.
If you do even a little bit of research, you are bound to find endless studies and reports that tout the value add of a student who is math savvy. Some studies correlate potential income earnings to math competency, and others denote the strong connection between real life problem solving ability and math proficiency. All of these studies have valuable content and make plausible assertions. There is one recent study in particular though, that has piqued my interest.
In August of 2011, a Harvard study was released that compared U.S. student proficiency in math and reading with that of other industrialized nations. The study, "Globally Challenged: Are U.S. Students Ready to Compete?," concluded that "only 6 percent of the students in the U.S. graduating class of 2009 performed at an advanced level in math." The study went on to say that of the 56 countries included in the study, the U.S. ranked 31st. That is lower than most other industrialized countries. Yikes! The president in his September 23rd radio address also spoke of U.S. students falling way behind their global counterparts. Clearly this is an issue of epic proportions.
Couple these statistics with the fact that the three most burgeoning career fields for this generation of kids (on a global scale) all utilize math, and you can't help but agree that we need our students to love math, not hate it! Technology, science, and entrepreneurship are the career paths of tomorrow, so if you want your son or daughter gainfully employed as an adult, you may want to start looking at math in a whole new light. Let's have our kids save the word "hate" for when they are forced to eat their Brussels sprouts, when they are awakened by the 6:00 AM morning alarm clock, and when they see the last days of summer vacation slipping away -- not for their feelings about math. Hating math in today's world... that is just not an option.