Tuesday, April 9, 2013

"I Was TERRIBLE At Math When I Was In School!"

As I moved up to the line, staring back at me was the number 137, and I didn’t know what the hell to do with it.  Sure, I was a beer or eight into my night, but nevertheless I was drawing a blank as I attempted to calculate the 301 ‘out’ in the dart game I was fiercely engaged in.  Though my iPhone has a calculator which clearly could assist my dilemma- what guy pulls a calculator out during a game of bar darts!? Per habit, I looked over at my buddy Frank who has a terrific mathematical mind.  Frank, almost anticipating my numerical incompetence calmly acknowledged my glance and spit back, “I’d go bulls-eye, trip 17, double 18.  Or you could go trip 20, trip 20, 17…..”  I took my shots and went back to our table as my opponent moved into position for his turn.  After a gulp of my beer, I thanked Frank for his quick help.  “I’m terrible at math!” I admitted.

The message here isn’t that you need to learn your multiplication facts if you’re going to be a dart player (though it’s not a terrible idea…).   It’s the last part of the little tale above that is worth examining-particularly for educators.

It’s always puzzled me how freely adults will admit, often with a sort of proud bravado, their innumeracy.  It would not be uncommon in my experiences and observations that after a group of adult friends enjoyed lunch together that one member of the group to be expected to breakdown the bill for the table. “Oh, I was terrible in math when I was in school.”  It would be uncommon for one of the same friends to ask for the menu to be read to them, and then brag that they were lousy at reading words in high school.
There is a double standard here, even if only in perception, and it no doubt has impact on our schools.  It is a given that students must be able to read when they leave school to have a prayer later in life.  However, too often math is treated like a luxury topic for the gifted.  Parents will freely admit they were terrible in math while in school.  Even teachers who instruct disciplines other than Math & Science will often confess they were poor in math.

All of this eventually comes together to send an incorrect message that one can get through school and be successful in life without math competency.  It tells kids that reading is for all but math is only for some.  None of this encourages hard work or perseverance, nor does it encourage students to pursue higher level math courses which may lead to careers in math related fields. 

The worst part is these perceptions are usually incorrect.  While it’s true I’m not a chemist or an engineer, I do successfully budget (without error) for both my personal life and for my school.  Based on my poker rakings, I’d say I’m pretty decent estimating the odds that my hands will win.  I know that 150.92 QB rating is good and a .150 batting average is terrible (and why).  I understand that a .29 effect size for traditional homework reveals it is not a strategy worth my teacher’s time.  I’d argue that most adults, if they thought about it, could list tons of mathematical things they were good at (and I’d argue many adults reading ability isn’t as strong as they believe…).

And yes, after a half dozen IPAs my automaticity to break down 137 isn’t as strong as the next guy’s.  However, I do understand the process and could have figured it out if push came to shove.  It’s critical if we wish to produce persistent and eager math learners that we begin to break this perception down.  Educators should strike this sort of rhetoric permanently from their thoughts.  They need to confront it when they hear it, and should coach parents on this topic during parent nights and open houses where appropriate.  If teachers, parents, and other valued adults continue to send the message that it’s completely okay to be a poor math student, than perception will indeed equal reality.    

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