Teaching Kids to Hate Math

Why is it that in our society we have such a vilification of math? Why is it so acceptable to “be bad at math”, and have others say “that’s fine, math is hard”. There probably is some literature out there, articles or studies that I haven’t come across, and if any of you reading this know of any, and can reference or link them, I would like to read them. In the absence of such articles, what I have is observations and anecdotes. I realize that these aren’t proper data, and once again, if anyone has counter examples and arguments that show my observations are limited and not representative of our greater society in North America, I would love to hear them, as they would actually make me feel better.

I will tell you that recently, I have heard more younger students say that they enjoy math, but older students I encounter (middle school range: grades 6 – 8), and many adults generally have an adverse reaction to the idea of math. With its internal logic, consistency and patterns, math should be much easier to understand than, say, spelling in English, with all of its historical alterations and borrowing. Yet, Mattel thought it appropriate in 1996 to have Barbie proclaim that “Math class is tough!”. Of course, they were rightly corrected on this by women’s groups because having a female character say this phrase is sexist and promotes the stereotype that women can’t do math or science, but in the article, a spokesperson for Mattel says the phrase is “correct for many students both male and female…”. But why is this the case?

My wife once took a child with special needs who was in our care into school a bit late because of a difficult morning. She explained to the secretary that he was having trouble getting started that morning due to being up late having a screaming tantrum over having to do math homework. Her response? “That’s okay, math is hard. I have trouble with it, too.” Sure, show some sympathy, that’s great, but an adult admitting that they struggle with grade 4 math doesn’t set a good example to the students we are trying to get to learn some basic skills. And this I think is the crux of it: too many adults are sharing their math anxiety with children and setting them up for failure. Adults pass their fears to children. But where did their anxiety come from?

I think I’d like to pause for a moment for a disclaimer of sorts. I realize that there are many adults and children who take readily to math, realize its importance and genuinely enjoy using it. Without these people, we would have so little of the technology and knowledge that we have about the world today. Likewise, I recognize that there are people with learning disabilities who struggle to retain concepts, not through any lack of their own effort, but due to a processing system they were born with and have to work with every day. In this writing, I am addressing the wide “average” of people learning the basics of day-to-day mathematics.

Much has been made lately in Ontario of math scores and how to get students to perform better on standardized tests. There has been a lot written about this, and as I’m only going to briefly touch on this topic as part of my greater point and not the whole of it, I will let you find more on that topic for yourself. Some politicians have complained about “Discovery Math“, claiming it doesn’t teach kids how to do math properly, and schools should get back to the old way, the way they learned it. Presumably, what they mean by this is through direct instruction on how to solve a math problem by following the steps, and then repeating this through drills and practice questions until they remember how to do all the steps to get to an answer. But isn’t this repetitive chore of following the steps to mysteriously arrive at some number most likely the cause of the anxiety? If the feeling that is associated with a memory is a negative one, doesn’t it cause an aversion to whatever’s contained in that memory? And did that method create a better understanding of the concepts? Many older people complained about the “new math”, and there was an uproar in the United States about the introduction of the “Common Core”, which essentially is just teaching more than one way to solve math problems and reach a solution. Yet all these adults complained that it didn’t make sense and couldn’t figure out low-grade math problems, because they don’t understand math! They can blindly follow the steps they were given, and on the one hand feel superior for having gotten a “better” math education while simultaneously hating the process of doing it.

While some decry the idea of making math learning more fun and interesting so that students can make good associations with it, better understand the concepts, and potentially pursue them further, many embrace the idea. I, of course, am in the #mathisfun camp. But let’s look at some of the struggles here, as a game company that is making a game based on math.

Making a “math game” immediately puts your game in to the category of “educational”, which many automatically interpret as “for kids”, who then read it as “boring”. And in many cases, they’re not wrong. There are a lot of games that focus on the educational aspect, and so trying to get the players to learn something, miss out on the key aspect of a game: fun. Does rolling the dice to move a piece to land on a square in which you must answer a math question make doing that math question more fun? Probably not. If you introduce a “game” to your class, and then pull out a deck of cards, flip two over and give a point to the student that multiplies those numbers together first, is that  game? Technically, since you are awarding points and there is a goal to achieve to “win”. But how different is it from doing a worksheet, really? Does this “game” allow you any choices, or any ability to employ a strategy or plan a couple of turns ahead? No, not really. There are some games out there that help practice math skills that I’ve heard are fun, like Sum Swamp, and with the rise in the popularity of board games, more are being made that have a learning aspect to them. But can I get middle-schoolers to play Sum Swamp? Probably not. With the rise in popularity of board games, many more are being made that capture the fun that should go with being a game, but also offer some learning. The key is to make whatever skill is being practiced part of the game, not the point of the game.

Let’s look at word games for example. From Scrabble, to Bananagrams, Wordical, Unspeakable Words, and many more, there are games that require players to use their vocabulary and spelling knowledge to win. Are these considered “educational games”? I believe that people see them as having educational value, as they are often seen in schools (except, possibly, Unspeakable Words (although, I do have that one in my classroom)), but they fall into the category of “word games”, not “educational games”. Many people enjoy word games, many will play them, not necessarily with the zest or enthusiasm of a “word nerd”, but games of this category don’t have noses turned up at them by a large portion of the population in the way that a “math game” does. Does this itself not show the bias against math?

So yes, we’re making a “math game”. It says so right on the box: “Mathemagician’s Duel“. On the back are the pictures of the cards, and there are numbers and operators shown right there in plain view. There’s no disguising what this game is about. And during playtesting, here’s what I observed: When enticing people to try it out, we deliberately referred to it as a wizard game, not a math game, to get people to sit and try it. Many adults would be hesitant and unsure, and tell us that they weren’t “good at math”, even though this edition includes only addition and subtraction. I found myself sounding almost apologetic that it had math in it, and asked my players to pretend that they were in grade 6 and given an opportunity to play this in class. But during and after playing, there was a shift. We got comments like “I was so into it, I didn’t realize I was doing math”. We’ve had adults tell us that they enjoyed it, no need to pretend to be younger. I had a student in one of my classes tell me that at first he didn’t want to play it because it was math, but after his friend made him play, he loved it. He became the student who would try to get someone to play him every day at lunch time. People have told us that they can see the learning value, because it practices math skills, but they liked the game for what it was, and others have said that they feel they might have a better attitude toward math today if they’d been allowed to practice this way in school.

A lot of games have math in them, for calculating points, hit rolls, etc. They practice basic math skills, and that’s one of the many reasons that board games are great, and good for society. But these games aren’t “math games”. Can we please set aside this anxiety of math that we’re handing down to children, in spite of the efforts of educators, and embrace the idea that math isn’t to be feared, but is another skill that we can all use and have fun with? Play math games with your kids. Your attitude toward math can have a big impact on their learning and success later.

2 responses to “Teaching Kids to Hate Math”

  1. Great article Scott! A lot of food for thought there. I know that I myself was not good at math when I was a kid, and it was only through the play of game that my math skills improved. I think that a lot of the fear of math comes from two things (1) a lack of automaticity with their basic math facts, and (2) a lack of understanding of WHY the answers are correct. The functions of math make sense when you take the time to understand them.

    1. I agree that there needs to be both of those things (automaticity of the basics AND an understanding). Unfortunately, I feel like those arguing about how math should be taught are focusing on having one OR the other.

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