I Must Have Hated Math Class... Published 2006-10-19

In school, I did well in my math classes to the extent that I began my college career majoring in the subject. According to a recent Brookings Institution study, I must have really hated math in school. The study found that students in the U.S. generally enjoy math class more than their counter-parts in other countries but faired worse on achievement tests.

The argument here is not that student happiness causes low achievement. Correlations do not prove causality. But school reformers should take note. When thinking about how schools can be improved, the intuitive attractiveness of the idea that making students happier results in better education should be held in abeyance. Happiness is not everything ... [ref pg. 14]

Their point is well taken especially the idea that we should not assume that making school more relevant and enjoyable will increase student performance. Don't get me wrong! I am a strong believer in relevance, project-based authentic learning. But as evangelists, we cannot afford make such assumptions. We need to backup our ideas with facts and result.

I remember hearing about this math teacher who confronted by a parent who was a traditionalist when it came to the teaching of mathematics. This parent was concerned with a group project that the teacher assigned designing a rollercoaster. The teacher listened to the parent's concerns and then related conversations she had overheard during lunch earlier that week. Students were discussing their projects, defending the mathematics and challenging their classmates to do likewise. They were passionate about their projects, about math! She then sealed her argument by noting that all of her students passed the AP exam the previous year with all earning 4's or 5's.

I was talking with an educator the other day about this report and he noted a similar study that suggested that our science students are more confident than their counter-parts in other countries but performed worse on standardized tests. Installing a false sense of confidence in our students is not productive, but neither is the opposite - giving our students a falsely low regard for their abilities. [Only 6% of 8th grade students in Korea (one of the highest performing countries in math) report that the "usually do well in mathematics" ]

By the way, the truth is that I really liked math class. I enjoyed the challenge of solving problems and learning new cleaver ways of working on even more complicated problems. I dropped my math major in my Junior year precisely because it was not relevant. I could solve the problems (I was doing well in my classes) but I had no idea what all of this stuff was about. Speaking personally, I attribute my success in math directly to my teachers' ability to make the subject challenging and engaging.

Reference: "How Well are American Students Learning"


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