There is a pervasive myth that mathematics is more difficult than other subjects. Many are immediately turned off maths in school, deciding that they don’t have the ‘maths gene’, or believe pseudoscience about how the brain works and decide that, no matter what, they will never be able for mathematics. This Homer Simpson approach to learning has helped turn the myth into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Even some parents dismiss their kids’ struggles with maths, shrugging and noting that they themselves are also ‘not good at maths’. Why is it that with every other subject people are encouraged to put in the effort to better themselves, to explore and understand, but with maths many people are discouraged from the start? This conviction that they just can’t do it is reinforced by the societal mindset.
Like anything, maths takes effort to learn. Maybe many go through school happy to rote-learn, unquestioningly, and regurgitate an information dump in their final exams. This even applies to maths to a certain extent. Many are taught to follow a fixed set of steps in predictable questions, without actually understanding the mechanics behind them. I remember uproar about a particularly inventive Leaving Certificate question about five years ago. Many maths teachers interviewed in the media vented that ‘the students hadn’t seen this question before’. To those teachers I would say, perhaps if you had helped your students develop critical thinking skills instead of focusing on rote-learning they would have been capable of negotiating the very clever question. I’ve posted the question (or one very similar to it) at the very bottom of the page for those of you who want to test yourselves.
Being doubly discouraged through being told they don’t have a ‘maths brain’, and through rote-learning, it’s little wonder that many people grow up with such an innate fear of mathematics. Cynics will suggest that we don’t need maths, because we carry calculators in our pockets all the time now. That’s all well and good, but people often don’t know what they should do with numbers (not to mention not being able to use a calculator, with regard to order of operands). I often get asked, when recruiting staff for the summer, how much tax a prospective employee will pay. Not a difficult thing to work out, but it seems that some people have no idea what to do with the numbers at their disposal, despite having the aforementioned calculator constantly on their person. Not to mention the fact that they could use the same device to look up a site that’ll do it all for them.
Even those capable of doing the calculations seem so addicted to the devices in their pockets that they automatically go to them. I recall having coffee with my classmates while studying for a masters. I think the discussion centred on something simple like the passing grade for a certain subject, which wan’t marked out of one hundred. Anyway, converting it to a percentage was a trivial calculation, yet almost every one of my classmates simultaneously reached for their phones to do the calculation for them. I stopped them, and asked them why the needed a calculator, and they all realised that they didn’t. It was a natural impulse. I, the old man of the group (I was 28), had to point this out them. These were all recent graduates in either physics or engineering. They had all studied maths extensively, yet still seemed reluctant to do the simplest of calculations in their heads.
But the real advantage to studying maths is not in being able to do arithmetic. It is in developing problem solving skills, and recognising relations. You don’t need to be able to figure out square roots in your head to be able to see how things correlate, and figure out the nature of the relations. Linear, quadratic, sinusoidal? There is a tendency for many people to see things in black and white, or to see all relationships as linear. The world is generally more complex and involved than that, and developing the mental agility to figure this out comes largely from a good grounding in maths. A common question in school is “when will I ever use this?” Well, that’s entirely up to you. The more information and skills you have, the more informed and reasoned your decisions will be. This is what maths teaches us. To look at issues from different angles (pun certainly intended) and thusly figure the best way to approach them.
Yes, learning maths can be very challenging. But so is almost everything in the beginning. Learning to play a musical instrument. Learning to ride a bike. Learning to speak a language. They all require effort and persistence. It is true that learning difficulties exist, such as dyscalculia, which make maths more difficult for some. But the common belief that maths is inherently esoteric is nothing but a myth, and this myth needs to be dispelled.
Besides, mathematics and its associated sciences do not have to be scary. They can be damn well entertaining, and a joy to participate in. If you can find an hour to spare, please watch the physics lecture below from the wonderful Walter Lewin. I defy you not to enjoy it. Always remember, fysics is phun.