Monday, June 17, 2013

Why Johnny Can't Do Math

            I’ve been teaching college for about a decade and I can tell you—college students can’t do math. I don’t even teach math. But, I do give out grades and when it comes time to update students on their progress I’ll have the following conversation innumerable times:
            “Mr. Tipton, why am I failing your class?”
            “Well, you didn’t turn in this assignment and this assignment.”
            “Yeah, but I got hundreds on these five assignments.”
            “Yes, but your grade is weighted.”
            “Weighted? Look, if I add up all these grades I have five hundred points. Divide that by seven and I’m getting an eighty-three percent.”
            “Actually, five hundred divided by seven is more like a seventy-one.”
            “Okay, but that’s still a C!”
            “But, you don’t just add them up and divide. Your graded is weighted.”
            “I don’t get it?”
            “Look, those five hundreds are worth three percent each. The two assignments you’re missing are worth ten and twenty percent.”
            “So, what’s your point?”
            “That zero on the twenty percent assignment is worth more than those five hundreds combined.”
            “What is five times three?”
            “Good, now put away your calculator. Is fifteen more than twenty or less?”
            “So, why am I failing your class?”
            At this point I just want to grab the nearest math instructor and choke him to death!
            When I first started teaching, I thought this was an isolated incident. I felt sorry for the poor student. “Well, she’ll never be an engineer. Tough break she’s also failing my writing class.” After having this discussion thousands of times and killing a few math instructors, I came to realize—college students can’t do math.
            So, I’ve identified the problem, but what’s the cause? Talking to students (or anyone that hates math) it becomes quite apparent there’s a huge mental block when dealing with math. I’ve met bright, articulate people whose heads fill with cement as soon as the word “math” is uttered. “MATH! I HATE MATH!” The eyeballs cross and steam begins pouring out the ears. When students have a mental block it’s so often math. Why?
            Imagine you’re back in school. The Arithmetic Nazi has you at the board. She has that scowl across her face. In her right hand is a pneumatically loaded chalk holder. In her left hand is a book of evil spells (also sometimes called an Algebra textbook). You’re scribbling on the blackboard, while your mind furiously tries to form an answer: x=4.
            “No, no, no! What are you doing? X does not equal four. X equals eleven!”
            You stare at the blackboard in bewilderment. “How does X equal eleven?” you think to yourself.
            Math—it’s so black and white, cut and dry, right or wrong. There is no discussion. There is no wiggle room for a difference of opinion. You’re either right or wrong—and, quite frequently you’re WRONG! Good thing that pneumatic chalk holder doesn’t hold bullets!
            Imagine for a moment a child learning to walk. If you’re thinking, “What does this have to do with math?” then quit thinking that. Just shut up and allow yourself to take a vacation from math. Can you see the child?
            The first time the poor kid stands up, he wobbles and falls. The second time—wobbles and falls. He wobbles and falls many times. Then, he begins to fall forward and puts out his right foot to catch himself. Yes, he still does a face plant, but not before taking his first step. There’s a great deal of wobbling and toddling before he can finally stand and walk as well as you or I.
            Now, think about his parents for a moment. As he wobbles and toddles, what are they doing? They are encouraging his every attempt. Think about his brain. It’s not just his body that’s wobbling and toddling. His brain is doing the same thing—trying to make connections to control his steps and gain his balance.
            Let’s suppose rather than being supportive, his parents were to smack him across the forehead every time he stood up and didn’t walk perfectly? What do you think would happen? Well, he would stand up and then SMACK! Stand up and SMACK! Stand up and SMACK! Then, he would just crawl around too afraid to try to walk. He has now developed a mental block to walking.
            So, there are two different approaches being illustrated in terms of walking. One is a positive approach that encourages the wobbling, toddling process of learning to walk. The other is a negative approach that punishes an attempt to walk that does not produce the perfect gait.
            Which approach seems closer to the Arithmetic Nazi? It seems she is taking the negative approach. Should she? Or, is learning math just like learning walking—where the brain goes through a wobbling, toddling stage? Doesn’t the brain go through a wobbling, toddling phase anytime it’s learning something new?
            X equals thirteen—SMACK! X equals two—SMACK! X equals forty-seven—SMACK! And, the brain develops a cement block anytime math is brought up. When someone is learning math (or any subject) their brain will come up with wrong answers when the brain is in that wobbling, toddling stage of learning. However, the brain must go through that wobbling, toddling stage. Keep whacking a brain when it’s going through the process of learning and the learning factory shuts down. That’s the mental block that happens with math.
            I know someone is out there thinking, “Well, we can’t just accept wobbly, toddling answers. Two plus two cannot equal five. X must equal eleven. The square root of two-hundred-fifty-six is sixteen, not seventeen or twenty-nine!” Let’s consider the parents of that toddler. They certainly embrace the wobbling, toddling phase. But, would they find it acceptable if their child was six and had a gimpy gait? Certainly not! If the wobbly, toddling phase didn’t work as it should, they would take corrective actions—but, even then it wouldn’t be done with a SMACK! It would be done in a nurturing way.
            The reason college students can’t do math is quite simple—the education system kept smacking their brain as it went through the wobbling, toddling phase of learning. Once someone has a mental block, they can still learn—but, the block must first be removed! Removing a block that is the result of hundreds or thousands of mental smacks is a laborious task. Perhaps we need to evaluate our education system so we don’t put that block there in the first place. 

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