What Blocks us from Learning Math?
Math and the Past.
As a college math teacher I have been experiencing an interesting phenomena.
Many times students who are taught a simple concept or a rule that they
actually already learned in the past (the rule for adding two fractions
for example) do not learn the concept fully even though it is being repeated,
drilled and re-taught many times. On the other hand, children who
were never taught the concept learn it quickly. "What is the reason
for this?", you may ask. I believe that often the reason for the
problem lies in past experience of students. Once in a while a college
student would share with me a story about his past hurt experience in math,
either in elementary school, middle school, or high school. For example,
Once I taught a College Algebra student who actually was successful
in learning the new concepts that we studied in the class, but failed in
the areas that she was familiar with. At the final exam that
took place in a large auditorium the student froze and did was not able
to complete the test and so I waited for her after everyone else left.
After some time she came to me and said that she had a past memory flash
back in her mind.
"I am back in first grade, my first class.
The teacher explained some facts about numbers and every one seemed
to understand except me. I felt that there must me something awfully
wrong with my mind as far as learning math is concerned. I did not
realize that all the other children learning something in kindergarten
that I never did. From that day on, I was never able to learn math.
My mind was closed"
Many times I go to a party or a gathering and someone asks about my
profession, the answer "mathematician" , a typical response would be "Oh,
I was never good at math". Often, when a student in my class solves
a math problem successfully, rather than feeling good about it, a typical
response is "Oh, that was too easy" (The hidden thought behind the response
is something like "Since I am not good at math and I solved the problem,
it must have been easy"
The following paragraphs are responses that students wrote from their
This is in response to your posting about learning about math:
I think that lack of confidence is something that often blocks students
from learning, and not just with math. It isn't necessarily a lack of their
ability that holds them back, rather it is a lack of confidence in who
they are. Since we were little kids, it hasn't been "cool" to be
smart, therefore, lots of kids who know the answer wont raise their hand
"too" quickly, or even at all. This doesn't concern just answers
to problems or questions presented by the teacher. It could be a
feeling of excitement and joy that they experience because they enjoy what
they are learning, or the fact that they are learning it at all, which
they repress because it simply isn't cool to be excited about learning.
I see it all the time in classes, the little smirks and raised eye-brows
that pass from one student to another when a professor is excited about
what they are sharing with the class. The look that says, "Woah, this guy/girl
is such a loser". Well, i have news for all those with raised eye-brows
or a snobbish smirk. The only losers those who hide what they are
and what they feel; for fear of others perception.
After reading the "Leaning Math Experiences" I have to say I can
relate to the girl who had trouble in kindergarten. I used
to think that I was bad at Math and had a very closed mind towards
it. "I don't understand and will never will!!" used to be my
motto. I remember having a hard time remembering my table of contents
in 4th grade and everybody else in the class knew it but me.
I felt left out and not good at all. In sixth grade though
I had this fabulous teacher, Ms. A. She knew how negative I was about
Math and how stubborn I was in repeating myself that I was a math illiterate.
She was an awesome teacher, because she taught her class in a fun way,
through games, discussions, races anything that would keep us on our feet.
I remember liking math much more in 6h grade because she taught it in a
nice fun way. She also taught other courses like history and reading
which surprisingly enough I remember because of her class. So 7th
came along and we had the hardest and meanest teacher you could ever face
in high school, Mrs. Acuna. I remember entering her class being so
scared of the rumors upperclassmen had given us. It wasn't a very
pleasant class because we were all scared of her. Anyway, the I Id'
grade is when everything changed around. I wasn't really doing very
well my math class; it was the only course I was having problems with.
So my mom said that if I wanted a tutor then she'd get me one.
With this tutor I gained a lot of confidence in myself, I learned new shortcuts,
why you do things this way and not that way. Since it was a one to
one class then I could ask any question without worrying about anyone laughing
at me or thinking I was stupid. I learned a lot, but I learned that
it was just all a matter of self-confidence and being able to continue
with the problem and work you way around it. Then in 12d' grade I
was accepted in the AP Calc class.
All throughout elementary school I always felt that I was horrible
at math. I would try so hard, but my teachers would give me no motivation,
at least not the type of motivation and encouragement that I really needed.
I felt like all the other students in the class were so much smarter than
me, and that I would never be able to reach their level of understanding.
So i always just sat back and let those smart kids lead the class, and
I tried to follow in their footsteps. Then when i got into high school,
I had an excellent math teacher for geometry. I really enjoyed the class
and I felt like, for the first time, I was actually learning something.
This temporary feeling of accomplishment was shattered when I was a senior
in high school. I was put into a hard level math course, it was some form
of pre-calc. I had been doing so well previously that my teacher
thought I would be ready for a more challenging course. Well i hated
my teacher, she went way too fast for me. My frustration completely built
up over the year. I lost all of my confidence in math, and I feel
like I will never get it back. I think that my lack of confidence
is effecting me in this class, although I am slightly overcoming
I remember having trouble with math from day one. I could never
understand WHY!..Why I just couldn't seem to "get it". Everyone else around
me in class understood math. On top of that my teachers could never hide
their frustration with me, nor could my Father who is an engineer, and
whose math skills are abundant! i have to be honest and say I'm not quite
at the point of letting myself feel confident in math. That seems incredibly
foreign to me. I know letting go of this fear will afford me greater ease,
and allow me to have fun with math. It is so easy to say and write that
last sentence, it is the act of allowing myself to feel free in math that
is the difficult task. I'll get there, it just might take some time.
I remember being in kindergarten and my teacher teaching my class
about numbers. She would put two blocks in her hand and ask us, "How
many blocks do I have in my hand?". I remember the answers would
vary as some us didn't know what numbers meant. One day she opened
up her hands and asked us, "How many elephants do I have in my hands?"
I remember being completely clue less and thought that I was dumb because
I couldn't see any elephants in her hand. All the other kids were
yelling out numbers, so I figured they were seeing something I didn't.
I was trying to be smart so I too started yelling out numbers. I
remember the numbers ranging from 1 to 4 zillion. I hate to admit
that the 4 zillion was one of my guesses. Finally, after about five
minutes of us guessing, she tells us, "I have no elephants in my hand.
I have zero elephants in my hand". I think that was my first "aha"
experience, as it dawned on me that having no elephants in her hand represented
the number zero, which
before had no meaning.
This was written by the same student at another time:
I've never actually been truly scared of math, however I have found
be frustrating from time to time. By taking this class
I have gained self-
confidence that I didn't feel in the beginning and I really
am having fun!
At first it seemed like it would take me days to solve what
seemed to be a
simple math problem, but as time goes on the amount of time
it is taking
me to solve these problems has become shorter and shorter.
I no longer
carry on my shoulders that anxious, I have to get it now,
feeling that I
once had. With self-confidence I know that I will solve
the problem and it
doesn't matter if it's right this minute, tomorrow, or even
the next day. I
know that it will happen, I just need to relax.
To sum it up:
Math can be hard (negative), math can be simple (positive), math
frustrating (negative), and math can be fun (positive)! It
all equals out in
the end! One thing for sure - math is only as SCARY as you