Math education: what is going wrong

Muhammad Rakibul Islam | Published: 00:00, Apr 21,2019



Fear of mathematics is something that most of us have to overcome and some are still haunted by the simplest idea of math. This phobia can be due to the approaches educational institutes of teaching mathematics across the globe. We invest a significant proportion of the time learning the instruments of math while not substantially developing a proper perception of what we are truly engaging in, where it comes from, or the purpose itself, argues Muhammad Rakibul Islam

NUMBERS surround the world. We might not notice it spontaneously, but the patterns emerging every day in our lives are constantly telling us stories about the universe. To understand these patterns, we need to develop complex algorithms that help us analyse our surroundings and understand our existence.

I have always been fascinated by the world, and its ever-evolving but understandable nature. Moreover, my quest to find the answers that still eluded me fueled my passion for choosing mathematics as my major in college.

Although, explaining a work done by a mathematician can get challenging as some of the common reactions I get from people when they learn that I am a math major include ‘Oh nice, math is definitely not for me,’ ‘I find math too difficult,’ or simply ‘I really hate math’.

I do not blame them for their integral fear (pun intended) or their hatred towards math, as I can understand the root behind this problem. Institutions and universities around the world teach a version of math that is bland and tumultuous, making it reasonably more complicated and unamusing to the students.

Being a mathematician does not mean, we can see numbers floating around us like in the movies. Mostly, it is solving complex algorithms in multiple dimensions which are difficult for anyone including us, but the fascinating and demanding nature of this subject attracts us who are craving for answers.

In this writing, I will try to tackle a few stigmas against math and hopefully portray a fascinating image of the world of math. Yes, being a mathematician-in-training means I might have my personal biases, but here I will attempt to strip away the traditional version of the subject and describe math in a manner that is digestible by everyone.

Before I dive into the heart of the matter, I want to address what math is and in the purest sense, mathematics is the study of patterns — predicting phenomena from the weather to the growth of cities, revealing everything from the laws of the universe to the behavior of subatomic particles. Even love — [like] most of life — is full of patterns: from the number of partners we have in our lifetime to how we choose whom to message on an internet dating website or app.

These patterns twist and turn and warp and evolve just as love does and are all patterns which mathematics is uniquely placed on describing. The commonly held notion of mathematics is that it comprises of brain-wrecking formulas and problems which are utilised in cranking computations. The delusion that most institutions create is that you must learn formulas and rules to follow blindly, regardless of whether you comprehend the reason behind them or not.

Yes, the formulas and rules we use do provide structure to the architecture, but to indeed morph it into a meaningful design, you need a sense of mathematical understanding — the capacity to think, observe and analyse mathematically. Moreover, this method of teaching is precisely where institutions cause wreckage, or I would instead say making a monumental mistake.

Now, let’s acquire some understanding of how the process of mathematical inquiry works. We have all done some sort of measurement in our lives, whether it is recording our heights as we grow or portioning how much chicken to cook for dinner — all of us have and will continue to encounter measurements in our everyday lives. But did you ever stop to think what this measurement really is? It is our brain’s attempt to compare a value with another, generally a standardised one, to better perceive the contrast between them.

Let me give an example to help you understand this better. In the image above, there are three lines named A, B, & C. Let us take the length of line A as a standard and consider it a unit of 1. From our diagram, in this case, line B is of length 2 units and line C 3 units. We can do this by changing our base unit too. If we took our standard unit length to be 2, line B’s length would be 4 units and line C 6 units. We could even take line B as the standard and assign it as a unit length of 1. In that case line A’s length will be ½ units and line C 3/2 units.

Basically, it does not really matter what standardised unit of measurement we assign for a line or even the value. What is important is that we have a standardised reference and we can use it to compare and analyse other lines.

Let that sink in for a second. We never stop to realise this practice of measurement or even the idea of valuation that we are utilising every single day of our lives. That $1000 iPhone or the $3.5 gallon of milk you buy are all figures labeled based on a standardised set of units in order to help us compare and hence perceive the relative value of a product.

And this exactly is the problem with our approach to mathematical learning — we invest a significant proportion of the time learning the instruments of math while not substantially developing a proper perception of what we are truly engaging in, where it comes from, or the purpose itself.

While this approach of understanding as compared to frantically applying might not make mathematics easy to understand — in fact, math will always still be challenging — it will at the very least make the subject more enjoyable. And if we can make math more enjoyable, the inherent fear of and hatred towards math will diminish.

Given the influence and relevance of math in our everyday lives, I firmly believe that this is crucial for advancement of both the subject and our own kind.

Muhammad Rakibul Islam is a student of Clark University.

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