For Your Child’s Sake, Don’t Hate on Math

Your words may be sending the wrong message.

Admit it — given the choice between reading a book and solving some algebraic equations, you’d pick the book. How about a technical journal vs. a fashion or sports magazine?

At a dinner out with multiple parties that ends up dividing up the bill, are you relieved when someone else offers to “do the math?”

Have you admitted to not understanding the details of your stock portfolio, your income taxes, your mortgage refinance, or even your paycheck?

And yet — you probably compare prices on groceries, cell phone plans, and airline tickets. You regularly look for sales and discounts. You can mentally inventory the contents of your refrigerator and estimate if you need to buy that extra pack of sliced cheese for lunches next week. You know which gas station sells the cheapest gas, even if it’s only by a few cents per gallon. You track your calories and your exercise in order to maintain or lose weight.

Where is this going? The question that really matters: If your child complains about his/her math homework, have you sighed and said, “Don’t worry — I was bad at math too…?”

Why is it socially acceptable to hate on math, but no one would ever say that they “hate vocabulary?” or “just don’t get words?” What kinds of attitudes do these statements convey to our children about the value of these concepts and skills?

One can hardly turn on the news today without hearing the phrase “STEM education.” STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Science brings out the explorer in all children. We have openly embraced technology and respect the problem-solving importance of engineering, yet we continue to have a prickly relationship with math.

I was a math teacher for 11 years, and I’ve been a math lover for over 30. I remember distinctly when I decided I loved math — it was in second grade at Sierra Elementary School, in Mrs. Gille’s class, learning my multiplication tables. As the chart on the wall grew with stickers recording our success mastering each set of number facts, my excitement over the patterns and logic of math grew as well. I loved that chart! And I loved, loved timed-tests — the pencils flying, the strategy of finding “easy” problems quickly, the excitement of answers coming so rapidly…

In high school, I discovered calculus in an Advanced Placement class taught by Jolene Kercher. My love of math propelled me to choose engineering, and I dove deeper into my math love affair. As an engineering major, math love was abundant amongst my classmates. We may have hated circuits, microprocessor systems or dynamics, but so many of my fellow students respected the predictability and elegant problem solving that comes with higher level calculus and beyond. Maybe it took six pages to solve a problem, but the techniques were known and fueled us like a puzzle book.

As I moved from undergraduate studies to post-graduate fellowship to PhD work to teaching middle school math and science, I discovered that the rest of the world not only didn’t love math — they were resistant as to its usefulness. Since then, I’ve spent many a checkout line at the grocery store trying to convince fellow shoppers of how much algebraic thinking is involved in their purchasing patterns.

At dinner parties, saying you teach math is usually met with groans — saying you love math — I am not even sure how people would react! Now that I am a national policy advocate for not just math but science, engineering, computer science, technology — I am deeply troubled by the societal acceptance of math hating.

Our lives are ruled by decisions we make based on mathematical thinking — affordability, investment, budgeting, rates… We weigh the costs of each purchase, we save up for a rainy day, we stretch our dollars, we push speed limits and memorize transit schedules. On a daily basis, we measure, estimate, apportion, reduce. We improve our homes, fix our cars, cook and bake. We shop for deals, guess at sizes, and estimate bank account balances or a dream purchase. We split a dessert, convince our kids to share and try to leave enough time for ourselves in an increasingly busy life. We cut back, diet, scale down and save.

All of these actions require not just a basic understanding of mathematics, but a fundamental mathematical mindset. I argue that we are not ‘bad at math,’ as some of us have been told — but bad at recognizing the power of math, the ubiquitous nature of mathematical thinking and the overwhelming reliance on mathematics in our society. And even worse at conveying the value of math to our youth?

As you check your watch, your phone and your email — trying to decide if you have time to forward this article to your friends, you are making use of those mathematical channels in your brain. Problem solving, forward planning and anticipating future outcomes — these are the types of skills stressed by STEM education. They start with the ability to strategize, recognize patterns and draw conclusions from data — all skills learned very early in mathematics.

So please — don’t hate on math. Take stock of how reliant you are on your ability to process numbers, percentages, rates and time. Recognize your innate talents in mathematics –and whatever you do — please stop telling your children that you aren’t good at math, lest they adopt the same attitude. Bottom line — math is everywhere, math is important, and we should all be ready to tell our kids that we use it every day because we need it. We may not all love math, but in order to reverse the trend of generations of math-haters, we have to change our message to our children.

Camsie McAdams, a former math and science teacher of 10+ years, holds a Master’s in Education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and is currently the Senior Advisor on STEM Education at the US Department of Education.

This post originally appeared on Pass The Chalk, Teach For America’s blog.