The problem with how schools teach math

In a Standard 9 classroom in India, the teacher dictates a math problem to the class.  Samarth, the top ranked student in the class, is all ears. Even as the teacher dictates the problem, he has already begun solving it in the margin, putting equations down and plugging in the data. Merely 10 seconds after she has finished, Samarth puts his hand up.

“25 ma’am!”

The teacher looks down at her notes in disbelief – this problem was trickier and she hadn’t expected a response so soon. But sure enough, Samarth was right. She walks over, smiling, and inscribes a star with red ink on his notebook.

Scenes like this were typical in my math classroom from high school. Solving every problem was a race against time, and against one’s peers. As a participant, this was exciting. Every problem was a competition to win and pumped adrenaline into our bodies. Nevertheless, the math teacher was actually destroying some of her class’s best math talent in the process.

As humans, we can understand emotions quickly. The moment we look into the eyes of another human being, we can sense what they are feeling. Similarly, we can learn morality and skills like spatial orientation at a very young age.  The earliest stories children are told are ones that distinguish good from evil. All of these skills were required for us to live, hunt and gather in close knit tribes for tens of thousands of years before we learnt how to write.

And then there are the newer, more abstract subjects – mainly flavours of math and science. A good chunk of what we learn in these subject are relatively recent discoveries for our species. Their theory and practice developed in neolithic times – after we discovered how to write, which is merely 3% of our species’ time on earth. Calculus is not more than 500 years old. Even the most basic model of the atom, involving protons, neutrons and electrons, is but 150 years old.

For understanding math concepts like addition and multiplication, our brains need to develop chunks through repeated reinforcement of mathematical patterns. When we first saw 3 cows joining a herd of 5 cows in a field, we observed how they merged into a a group of 8 cows. Sure, we can now add 5 + 3 without thinking, because we have pictured the scene above in various forms repeatedly. It still takes us a second or two to add up 76 and 88, even after years of practicing addition.

Our brain understands math concepts in a manner similar to understanding relatives. At first, they start off as strangers, but with time and repeated exposure, we get to know them better. Meanwhile, our brain has formed a chunk of that relative on its own terms. The methods and the time needed to understand a particular math concept, can vary among different students. For instance, the Pythagores theorem, which is usually taught using algebraic methods, has very elegant geometric proofs.

What the school system does, both Samarth’s teacher and the examination system, is to teach students one method and pit them in a race against time. Students in a class trees are like seeds in a clearing of a thick rain forest. The sapling that is earliest to sprout has a head start over all the hundred other seeds in its vicinity. In its first month, it is an inch taller, and receives more sunlight. But the end of the year, it is about 10 inches taller. In 10 years, it dwarfs the trees around it, covers up the clearing in the rain forest with its canopy of leaves and hogs all of its sunlight.

Unwittingly, this is what the school and examination systems reinforce. Students like Samarth answering math problems in seconds leave classrooms full of peers distraught and convinced that they would never be good at math.

Inspiration: Learning how to learn – a fantastic online course.

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