Sunday, June 19, 2011

The sad state of American mathematics education

Some recent discussions via various media have spurred me to post something about how pathetic mathematics education in this country has been for a long time -- long enough that I myself was influenced by its sorry state. As a boy, I began to encounter math phobia in grade school, where a tyrannical math teacher instilled the fear of math in me. I suppose her intentions were good, perhaps hoping to motivate me to greater achievement, but her methods were not successful in stimulating the response she probably wanted. Many subsequent teachers reinforced my fears, including my math teacher for 4 years in high school. His plan was to humiliate me into doing better, not unlike the tactics adopted by the fearsome math teacher in grade school. It worked no better in high school than it did in grade school. Instead, I began to doubt my ability to master the subject. Those doubts grew with time, to the point where in my college days, it was undermining my confidence that I could pursue the career I wanted for myself because I was performing so badly in math. Meteorology is a subject that uses mathematics to a considerable extent -- being incompetent at math was simply not an option.

It took the insight of a graduate student teaching assistant at the University of Wisconsin to begin the process of overcoming my math phobia. At that point, I had two C's and a 5-credit D in 3rd semester Calculus behind me, with no prospect for a good performance in Differential Equations. But Mr. Hunter found a way to open my eyes to the subject and I managed a B! He showed me that I could understand the material and enjoy it at the same time!

In graduate school, my advisor looked over my transcript and made it clear to me I needed to minor in mathematics! I swallowed the lump of fear in my throat and did what I was told. By some miracle, I had three straight excellent math teachers (in Tensors and Vectors, Complex Variables, and Fourier Series & Boundary Value Problems) and aced all three!! My first A's in math since 2nd grade!! My fears were vanquished and I became fully confident regarding math from that point on. It was math phobia that had been holding me back, not my ability! I wonder how many people that applies to? If I overcame my fear, then I came to believe others could, too.

Since then, I've seen many people who have been denied a career in my field owing to their lack of math skills, and I believe that the abysmal teaching of math is largely responsible. Learning how to do math can be inspiring and insightful -- skills that are useful in a technological world that can be fun and exciting to apply to real-world problems. Why are so many turned off by math? I believe it's because math teachers are among the worst at teaching their subject. Math isn't about cookbook recipes that need to be memorized -- it's about understanding the abstract world that math occupies and being able to use it to solve problems of significance to the real world. Math teachers usually suck at connecting the abstract world they inhabit to reality. Most math teachers have no clue why anyone besides a mathematician might need mathematics!

It's a universal truth that no one can teach a topic they themselves don't understand. Most math teachers feel at home in their abstract world but can't relate to those who seek to see the value of those abstractions in their reality! These so-called teachers can't relate to the reality inhabited by their students because those mathematicians don't inhabit it! When I was a graduate student, the Engineering School at OU taught several math courses because the Math Department pretty much sucked at teaching those subjects, and the topics were very relevant to engineering. I benefited from several good teachers of applied mathematics in the Engineering School!

If you have math phobia, believe me when I say it's largely been manufactured in your own mind, likely the result of lousy teaching. If you believe me when I say that math skills are useful to you, no matter what your profession, then you should accept the responsibility to learn math in spite of the lousy teachers!! I promise you it will be worth it!!