As an engineer, I had what most would consider a ridiculous amount of math in college. Here’s the thing — I hated every math class I ever had, except maybe high school algebra. Why? I found them fairly boring and disconnected with the real world (especially proofs). Obviously math is very important to engineering, and to daily life for just about everyone. But I think there is a serious problem with how we teach math in schools — elementary, secondary, college, etc.
The way math is taught in schools makes it seem disconnected and fake. If two cars are speeding towards each other at different speeds, when will they get to point in the middle — no one really cares. The math behind this type of problem is important, but the way we teach it makes it seem useless (especially to kids who can’t drive yet). Even worse is the obtuse way in which math story problems are often worded — like they’re trying to trick you. So you spend most of your time trying to figure out what the hell they mean before you can even get to the math. This fraudulent to math because it makes it seem more difficult than it has to be — and makes math seem disconnected from the real world.
Math in Science was Awesome
In high school, I ended up learning some math in my Physics class before it was covered in my Calculus course. We needed the math to do our labs and experiments. And in this case, learning the math was very interesting and seemed easy. Why? Because it was applied to a specific situation where you could see it in action. The same was true of even higher math that I used in my college Physics course on relativity — which used (hated by me) proofs. Even in the abstract world of proofs, the math in the science class was tied to something specific and real. Beyond silly story problems that ask you to figure out how fast watermelons travel in a speeding car, math in science makes sense because it’s not faked.
Abstract Thinking Can Be Difficult
One of the difficulties with math is that it really is fairly abstract. Even if you have a number of objects that you are counting, the logic and idea behind a number is abstract. The way we teach math in school is almost entirely abstract. Students have to wrap their minds around abstract ideas and then try to apply them to artificial problems. There has been some work to use real items like counting beads in Montessori practice to try to make math more concrete. But, in general, most math teaching and learning remains very abstract, which makes it seem more difficult than it has to be.
Make Math Applied, Concrete & Integrated
I don’t believe that math has to be boring or hated in school. When I’m doing math in an applied setting like science or engineering, it’s (almost) fun — it becomes a useful tool to solve a real problem. I think we need to consider changing the way we teach separate subjects in school and instead use integration to make every subject more interesting (including arts, language, history, etc.). While this would require more teamwork from teachers (who tend to be subject matter experts), and a change in the way we structure evaluations, it could make learning every subject, including math, more exciting and fun. This, in turn, could make all STEM careers, including those heavy in math, more accessible.
These are just my experiences and ideas, feel free to share your own in the comments below.