If we conduct a survey right now on a random sample of 100 people, how many do you think will say that they dislike math? How many do you think will say that they dislike their math teacher(s)? How many do you think will be able to accurately describe what learning math actually is?
Jo Boaler, both in her book, Mathematical Mindset, and the online course offered by Stanford University, mentioned that there are numerous people in the world, both adults and children who dislike math and had a negative experience with math or with the math teachers. From a study, many people inaccurately describe math as a subject that is largely about calculation. These, I think, support the idea that math is one of, if not the most, most disliked subjects in the world, aside from being judged as a boring and unuseful subject.
However, have we ever pondered and thought about it ourselves? Why does it happen this way? Why is math often, if not always, seen as an irrelevant subject? Is it really that way, or is there something wrong about how we learn math? Did our math teachers teach incorrectly? Was it the curriculum? Or what?
Being a math teacher, I must say, is very difficult. I don’t know how difficult it is if compared to be a teacher of other subjects. Why did I say that? At least, there are a couple of reasons that I could describe here:
- Jobs that require math in the journey or the jobs that are really math-related (e.g. engineer, actuary/insurance, architect, doctor) are the ones that perceived as more successful, in terms of income and status.
- There is a stigma in the societies that going for a science or math-related major in the university or career is (much) more prideful and prestigious.
- Societies see math as something important in terms of academic success.
- People who do well in math are seen as very smart (again, this is related to academic success)
- For some people, no matter how good your scores are on 14 subjects, for example, if your math score is low (or even fail!), you are probably deemed as a failure.
- Students perceive maths as a very difficult subject already, unless you are quick to understand the concepts.
- It becomes worse if you are a form tutor (or homeroom teacher) while teaching math. Chances are that your parents, whenever, they collect their child’s report book, they would check the math score first and probably ask, “Sir/Ma’am, why is my child’s math score is only 80?”
In short, math is often and largely perceived as a subject that is difficult, but useful for a career. If a student could do well in math, the parents will be so proud also. So, it is kind of a subject for the elites (read: smart or qualified ones). Hence, there is high pressure for students to be able to do well in math. In a competitive culture, don’t we all want our kids to be more successful than others?
Given all these difficulties and challenges, math teachers have an extremely difficult job to make math learning relevant as well as seen and felt as useful for students. Sadly, this is supported by the number of courses or professional development programs for teachers that do not really help teachers to get into the heart of learning mathematics. From all my years of being a math teacher, I barely have any of them. The best teacher training/seminar that I attended was the one delivered by Dr. Yeap Ban Har, 3 years ago. Before that? None.
Though I don’t want to discriminate against other subjects, this is my personal feeling. I have seen that the other subjects keep having those pieces of training that look better and are easier to implement, compared to math. Worse, some speakers “only” threw the idea that we need to create learning resources that help students to be able to apply their knowledge, but they themselves were language teachers. I got no issue with language teachers, but I have to be honest, that they couldn’t provide any good example for math lessons. The idea is beautiful and acceptable, definitely, for any subject. But these speakers often acted as if they were so good at being speakers, while I could bet that they barely knew anything about how to teach math properly.
Only until recently that I found an online course and book that really help me a lot. The author provides a lot of examples of tasks or assignments and assessments that could be used by math teachers, along with research findings that help us reflect on my teaching practices. Both the books and the course talk about how and why people hate math and what is missing in many math lessons, and at the same time offer the things that we could do transform the math class.
This is only my experience, I know. I don’t know if there is any math teacher out there that feels the same as I do. I hope none. However, at least, you could empathize with math teachers and “feel” how easy it is to be a math teacher, as also it is difficult to be any subject teacher.
In the upcoming weeks, I will share with you what I have learned from the course and book that I love about what it means to learn and teach math. It is something that I have been searching for since the start of my teaching career. I’d say, that I have to learn a lot, and at the same time, unlearn, and relearn.
Happy learning! 🙂