Wednesday, January 22, 2014

For the Love of Math: Why Children Struggle With Math

There was a time when I thought the children in my class were the only ones that didn't like math. After I found ways to really improve their skills and develop a love for math, I started visiting other schools and other classes. I thought, there has to be more children out there in the same situation. As I traveled from classroom to classroom, I found that children were the same everywhere. Though there were some differences, essentially the numbers were the same. About one in three students could do math. The rest either struggled with math or couldn't do it at all. As for who liked math, typically only the students who could do math liked it.
Children spend over 2000 hours in math class in their elementary lives. Lets assume that two thirds of the children in the class don't like math. We'll examine the reasons why they don't like it later on, but for now let's just assume that most kids are sitting through math class like most adults sit through home movies of distant relatives or instructional videos on assembling furniture. They wait spirit broken, eyes glazed over and yearning for recess like a sailor yearning for dry land until the triumphant sound of the bell rings. If you think this is an exaggeration, let's take a look at what they endure.
Math for some is like a foreign language. The teacher uses words like exponent, multiple, factor, vector, product and sequence on a regular basis. These words are included not only in the teacher's vocabulary but textbooks, instructions on worksheets and captions on the 1980's style posters on the wall. These words may be defined or clarified in a lesson, but there is a chance (as crazy as it seems) that a child missed the explanation, didn't understand the long, specific definition or simply needs more review for it to become knowledge. These words are a part of the culture or environment and children seldom ask what these words mean for the same reason a man doesn't ask for directions. They are already lost and confused and don't want the further embarrassment of being the only kid in class who doesn't know a word as they may get a response like "I just explained what it meant." or "Can someone help him out?" It's like spending an hour downtown of a foreign city where no one speaks your language.
Maybe the children the children will learn the vocabulary just from being exposed to it, much like average people learn medical practices just from watching shows like ER or Grey's Anatomy each week. Maybe the teachers don't know they are using words the children don't understand, much like when a bilingual person starts speaking a different language to a person who only speaks English. Maybe children have a biological predisposition to learning these words, much like a spider innately knows how to spin a web. Or maybe, just maybe, children don't know these words and are silently confused and frustrated by them.
Children are also asked to very specific tasks each day. As adult this might be compared to tying a knot. Though its appears quick and easy, it takes a very specific set of skills or steps to complete. Imagine not being able to learn how to tie a knot, but the plan is to come back tomorrow and try again the same way. Repeat this process for 2 weeks until it's time to move on to a new skill; learning the Rubik's Cube. Take the frustration and anxiousness a young groom has over tying a Windsor knot with his tie before the ceremony and multiply that by the 500 hours spent in math class by a grade three and you'll get a sense of how they feel.
Then there is the reward system. It's great for the students who can do math as they get stickers, bright red A's, special time at the back of the class, the chance to go to every gym class, guaranteed recess time, no homework and regular smiles and words of praise from the teacher. For the rest, it's not such a pretty picture. Instead they get 'Try Harder' stamps, black x's, extra time to practice the skills they've learned to hate, math time with a special adult during gym time, extra sheets to practice at home and the frequent gesture of disapproval and 'you can do better'.

By Darren Michalczuk

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