Six is afraid of seven because seven eight nine, but why are students so scared of math?
That’s a question educators across America have been struggling with, and the COVID-19 pandemic didn’t make the situation any easier. Most students still cling to the false dichotomy that they are either good at math or bad at math, and when they reach a problem, they don’t understand, they either shut down or give up completely.
As they get older, their attitude toward math develops a pattern, and they eventually come to the conclusion that math itself is useless.
“I’ll never use this anyway” they’ll say, and there is some truth to such a statement when it comes to complex mathematical concepts such as calculus.
No, a career in accounting won’t require an advanced understanding of calculus. No, a career as a singer or an actor will not require you to know the Unit Circle like the back of your hand, or how to find the prime factorization of 500, or how to solve for x when an equation is in exponential form.
Not every student needs to find the equation of a line perpendicular to a given line passing through a particular ordered pair. When solving for x makes students wonder “why?”, I explain that every career, even life itself, requires a certain degree of mathematical understanding. Everyone will need to know how to calculate percentages when determining whether $50 is enough to purchase a $45 shirt before a six percent Michigan sales tax is taken into account.
Everyone will need to know how to count, add, subtract, multiply and divide. We can use math to calculate how much 25 gallons of gas will cost at $2.24 per gallon. We use math when driving a car at 60 miles per hour when we want to determine how long it will take to travel 50 miles. We use math every day, but it’s so embedded into our daily lives that we often don’t realize it.
I have worked with middle school students time and again who know they need to do well in math but fail to recognize its value in their lives. I then ask what they wish to do with their lives, and then I tell them how math is relevant to that particular field.
One student wants to become an interior designer, so I explained how math is needed to know how much can fit in a particular room and what size a bedroom would need to be for a specific couch, television, closet or bed.
Another student loves hunting, so I asked how many bullets he could fit in a magazine and how many magazines he would need to practice at a shooting range with 50 bullets in total.
The first step in helping students move past their “I will never use this” mindset is to admit that math is more than just learning things that one will use.
Sure, certain aspects of math will be used each and every day, but why should a student learn how to find the distance between the base of a tree and the top of a tree when standing 50 feet away while looking up at an angle of 60 degrees when they want to become a dentist?
Sometimes, learning and struggling in math is more than applications. It’s also resilience and perseverance.
Students who problem-solve in mathematics will become more confident problem solvers in the real world. They will be less likely to back down from a challenge. They will have a greater degree of grit and learn how to tame their frustration and use it as a motivator.
Math is far from easy, but it teaches life skills like responsibility while also improving memory and accuracy.
To come full circle, math is one of the most important subjects students learn in school. It builds character and strengthens growing minds. But so long as students treat math like a circle in that it has no point, they will never understand that the circle is the most well-rounded shape.
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