NEW VOICES: “math sucks”

Inlovejenluc Note: A few weeks ago, I spent a fantastic week in Santa Fe as one of the instructors at the annual Santa Fe Science Writers Workshop organized by New York Times reporters Sandra Blakeslee and George Johnson. There's a lot of budding talent out there, which is why I told all the students in my little group that if they wanted to write a guest blog post for Cocktail Party Physics, they were more than welcome to submit something. Alex Morgan took me up on it (sucker!). He worked for GM for years as an engineer, and is now testing the science writing waters. Here's his rumination on girls and math, and his struggles to interest his own daughter in math — a subject near and dear to my heart as I slave away on my calculus book.

My beautiful daughter, Julia, was in the second grade when she first told me she hated math. I found this puzzling, because she didn’t seem to be having any particular trouble with it. My wife thought she was just teasing me, because I’m a mathematician. I decided a low key approach was best, so I didn’t make a big issue of it.

Julia is now in the fifth grade, about to “graduate” to middle school. Her vocabulary has developed over the last four years.  “Math sucks,” she told me recently, after working through a few pages of homework.

I couldn’t stand it. This girl had scored almost high enough in the standardized tests to automatically qualify for the advanced math track in middle school. What could be the problem? That night, after Julia had washed her hair, I approached her with my tape recorder. Cornered, she consented to an interview.

“What don’t you like about math.”

“It’s a lot of hard work,” she said, “and you have to memorize stuff, and when you don’t get the right answer, you feel really stupid.”

“You like your other subjects,” I said. “You love to read and write. What’s different about math?”

She settled back and gave a little smile. She was enjoying being interviewed. I was reminded of Ann Bancroft graciously indulging a Variety reporter. “When I write, I can say whatever I want to say, but in math there’s just one right answer.”

She had a point there. I loved mathematics for its concreteness, its lack of ambiguity. It felt to me like a solid anchor in a hostile, subjective world. But the flip side of that is you can be definitely, unambiguously, totally wrong. You can’t plead “I was robbed,” like you can when the blind umpire calls you out or your sterling essay is marked with a D minus by a demented grader.

I wanted to see if peer pressure was a factor for Julia. It’s often cited as a reason girls don’t like math. I thought I should be a little indirect.  “Do you know anyone who likes math?” I asked her.

“Austin likes math,” she said. Austin is a boy and a friend (not a boyfriend). “He likes it so much, he’s going to do math all summer, so he can take advanced math in middle school.”

“You could do that,” I said, casually eager. I couldn’t help myself. “You were very close to qualifying on that test they use.”

Julia adjusted the turban she had tied out of a towel over her wet hair. “Don’t be silly, Daddy.”
 She looked more bored than annoyed. I decided I could continue. “Do you know any girls who like math?”


“Do you think girls aren’t supposed to like math?”


The journal Science in July of 2008 ran an article “Gender Similarities Characterize Math Performance,” which analyzes data from the United States on math performance in grades 2 through 12. It reports that on average girls do about as well as boys. The intent of the paper seems to be to dispel the idea that women lack mathematical ability. The recent New York Times article, “Women Bridging Gap in Science Opportunities,” supports this idea, as does another new report (published June 1 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences), in which researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison found no innate difference in the math ability of girls and boys. But for Julia, that isn’t the point. She’s always done well in math, better, in fact, than her friend, Austin. She just doesn’t like it.

Julia’s math classes emphasize “memorize and recall.” Some exploratory elements are tacked on – at the end of a section she’s sometimes asked to measure something or count something and look at the patterns the counted or measured numbers make – but this exploration is not featured enough to make a difference in the “feel” of the class. Her curriculum has been packed with so many “topics,” there is little time left for discovery. Like, she had to memorize the definition of a number as opposed to a numeral and learn how to write numbers (oops, I mean numerals) in “expanded form.” Here’s an example of expanded form: 235 = (2 x 100) + (3 x 10) + (5 x 1). I had to look it up in the parent’s guide. She also had to memorize: standard form, word form, short-word form, and exponential form. I can’t imagine why she’s bored.  

Mathematics needs to be motivated. There are two sorts of motivation possible. The most obvious is to teach something that isn’t mathematics (like physics or cryptology) and then mix in the math. When I was a math grad student at Yale, both math and engineering faculty taught calculus. All the students wanted to take it from the engineers, because they would motivate the math with illustrations and examples from basic physics and mechanical engineering. The mathematicians didn’t see the need for this. I still remember a professor beginning his calculus class –- first day -– by proving that the epsilon-delta definition of limit was logically equivalent to some other definition – without any motivation.

An alternative to motivating mathematics with physical examples is to teach in a discovery mode. Basically, the teacher doesn’t give the students the facts but sets up mathematical experiences and experiments that lead the students to discover the facts themselves. For this to work, the teacher needs to be really into math. For example, the SEED program takes this approach, and it generally uses teachers with mathematics degrees, often graduate degrees. It’s my impression that SEED has been implemented only in urban school districts. In Julia’s suburban school, SEED isn’t available, and her teachers have generally not been that enthusiastic or skillful at math. 

As it stands, Julia is steadfast that she hates math. While I believe this represents a failure of the school system (and me), Julia scores high on the standardized “no child left behind” type tests, and for the schools, that’s success.

Julia may encounter girl-prejudiced teachers or math-negative peer pressure as she goes along, and if I get wind of it, I’ll do what I can to counter it. But the core problem she faces, as she enters middle school “hating” math, is the math teaching itself, gender neutral, uninspiring for all.

The actress and mathematician Danica McKellar has written a book explaining middle school math called (coincidentally) Math Doesn’t Suck (2007) and a sequel, Kiss My Math (2008). McKellar’s books are flamboyantly “girly” and packed with lots of sugar and froth to make the mathematical medicine go down. I’ll probably see if I can get Julia interested in the first book some time over the summer. I know she might resent my pushing math on her. But how can I let my little girl go math-less into the big world without trying at least a few stratagems? I know whatever I do she’ll be required to continue with math for four or five more years in school, but I’d like her to take it more seriously. Right now, she looks at math the way a bored aristocrat looks at a groveling peasant, giving only the smallest amount of attention along with a goodly portion of contempt.

“Can you fix my clock now, Daddy?” she asked, discretely offering to change the subject. We’d lost power at the house due to high winds that morning, and I had agreed to reset her Hello Kitty alarm clock for her. I got a penny to push the nasty little time-setting buttons, a secret I had discovered after bruising my fingers setting her clock a few times before.

“You know,” I said as I fumbled with her treasured icon of pink cuteness, “it took a lot of math to make this gadget: Electrical engineering for the circuits, that’s practically a branch of mathematics; chemistry, to get this pink plastic just the right shade of pink, you’ve got to solve chemical equilibrium equations; design software, how do you think they got those tiny eyes and big pink bow just right? Hello Kitty would be a messed up cat without lots of math.”

Julia eyed me with her aristocratic disdain and didn’t feel the need to respond. Mathematicians, scientists, and politicians are debating education policy and opportunities for women in STEM careers (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), but Julia is still living in a world where she need not trouble herself about the future. Of course, I won’t be able to leave her untroubled with her misconceptions, but I was done for the evening.

 “You want me to read to you?” I asked. I’d been reading her The Secret Garden.  I doubt if she’ll let me read to her at bedtime much longer. She’s growing up. But for tonight she was cool with it.

18 thoughts on “NEW VOICES: “math sucks””

  1. Get her “Math Doesn’t Suck” and then just put it on the coffee table. Don’t tell her to read it; just see what happens. That has worked for many parents – in fact, kids like the books the most when they aren’t “told” to read them…you’ll see, she’ll open it on her own, when you’re not looking. 🙂

  2. I hated math when I was her age too, and I probably didn’t do as well on the standardized tests, or get such great grades in it, either. You’re right — math in middle school is *boring*. Three things turned me around. 1) I liked to read, and stumbled across a couple of math books which showed me that math was more than just arithematic and jargon (The I Hate Mathematics Book and Fantasia Mathematica and of course Flatland) 2) Also through indiscriminate reading, I developed an interest in science fiction and the space program that made scientists and engineers into heroes for me. (Apollo 13 came out when I was fourteen, and I saw it four times in the theaters…) and I found myself accidentally reading some of Asimov’s science along with his science fiction 3) I finally got out of middle school and took an honors level high school geometry class, even though, based on my grades and test scores, I was told I probably shouldn’t attempt itthe honors version. That made me feel like I had something to prove, especially after it turned out that I was good at writing proofs and found it about a thousand times more interesting than “improper fractions” and “expanded form”.
    I had mixed feelings about the rest of high school math, but a delicate balance of “something to prove” and astronaut-hero-worship and a sort of nerd-superiority complex that I developed in high school made me dare myself to major in physics in college, with the understanding that I could quit if and when I totally failed at it. I didn’t and don’t consider myself a math wiz even then, but I never did fail out, so I ended up with a PhD and a job in physics.
    So that’s my story of transforming from “middle school girl who hates math and sucks at it” into math-using professional, and the biggest problem with encouraging other girls to follow that kind of path, I think, is that most of them want no part of the “total nerd in high school” part of the story. FWIW.

  3. I teach physics in HS and experience this type of gender issue every year during enrollment. This past year my enrollment was abnormally high and they outperformed the boys! I have encouraged my own daughter to take my class and she has agreed. I don’t know what to do to change it other than try to make my class interesting for everyone. Thanks for the great article! Keep it them coming. I just found this blog today and have enjoyed every post I’ve read.

  4. Alex, this is awesome! Great thoughts and great writing–thanks for sharing. It sounds like math is a casualty of the larger battle for inspired and inspiring K12 education, and I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with your call for motivation, which is needed at every level from arithmetic to linear algebra. My high school math teacher introduced calculus with the wine barrel problem. And I’ve worked with academically disinclined 10-year-olds who will happily figure out averages if it’s part of a predator-prey game (which, incidentally, can be played outside–outdoor education being one of the keys to inspiring education, I think).
    I would love to learn more about the other tack, teaching math in discovery mode. It sounds neat, but seems like it might take a prohibitively long time to cover the necessary material? Obviously I don’t know very much about it, though.

  5. Alex-what an excellent post. I feel your pain. I remember being incredibly frustrated (not to mention bored) with math in elementary school all the way through high school. I consistently thought that I simply couldn’t do as well as others (particularly boys) at math and no one attempted to show the interesting and fun aspects of math. It wasn’t until I excelled at a college math course that I believed I was actually good at it, and it wasn’t until I developed a strong enough interest in astronomy that I began to really like it.
    I agree with the first comment; don’t come on too strong. Your daughter is probably already disposed to ignore parental advice. Leave an interesting book lying around or get her a book on a subject she does like that relies on math, but don’t introduce it as “this book talks about how X uses math.” Even something simple like baking uses math. See what she likes that can include little math lessons to try to get her confident and interested in math itself.
    Also, even though she doesn’t see a link between gender a math, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t one. When none of your friends who are girls like math, it becomes seen as a “boy” subject and one to be avoided. Maybe you let her discover (with a little prodding) some very cool women who use math in their jobs.

  6. Anecdotal, but telling. Julia is in the age when, if others hate math (“Do you know any girls that like math?”) or love the new CD by the Funky Manhole Covers, just count her in. That would describe 90% of our US population. That’s why we let the media shape the national pulse.
    At the same time I would hate that particular math class at any age. Physics can be just as boring if it’s taught as a board game. Same for history. Reading and writing English classes would qualify if the teacher already knows what you should come up with for your “creative writing” assignment. And don’t ever read anything into a classic passage that doesn’t fit the teacher’s interpretation. Every so often, a child (or a young adult) can get a whole set of those classes/teachers and suddenly discover that they “hate school”.
    Schools should be teaching skills that allow problem solving … mix it up for variety. “Hey, you kids know a lot about math; now how would you do this? Oh, nobody knows; well let me show you a trick to maybe help.”
    Lots of kids say they like biology. But if it were taught only as taxonomy and anatomy, that would really get old. Sure there’s always leaf collections, insect collection, bone collections, rock collections, stamp collections, coin … .

  7. I taught with the Project SEED program for 5 years, mostly in Detroit. It’s a truly innovative way to expose kids to mathematics and to develop a love of the subject. The discovery methodology is phenomenal. I wish that I it were adopted on a much wider scale.

  8. One presumes Picasso had no demonstrable skills with differential forms. If she doesn’t like math, fine. Do something else.
    Now Sir Michael Philip Jagger, then on scholarship to the London School of Economics, discovered shaking his crotch at an audience was marvelously remunerative. If Mick Jagger needs a mathematician he hires one, like plucking a grape then expectorating its seeds.

  9. Nice to hear from everyone. Thanks for reading my piece. Danna, here’s a bit more about my understanding of the discovery or exploratory approach to teaching math. Andrew, I’d love to hear some of your insights from your SEED experiences.
    The exploratory approach definitely doesn’t try to cover as much material as a conventional course. It instead tries to give the student the experience of doing mathematics, the excitement of uncovering mathematical patterns, and in advanced courses, proving them as theorems. Sometimes, the exploration is done in groups, even the whole class. The main justification for the exploratory approach is to spark the students interest and excitement and also give a reasonable feel (or at least a reasonable suggestion of the feel) of what “doing mathematics” is all about. The main objections to this approach are: (1) not enough material can be covered, (2) most students are not capable of responding to it, and (3) most teachers don’t want to (or aren’t able) to teach math this way. My own reaction to the “covering enough material” argument is impatience: How much material do these objectors think the students are carrying away from standard math courses?
    The model for the exploratory approach is Socratic dialogue. Enthusiasts cite “The Meno,” in which Socrates leads an uneducated slave to discovered a mathematical truth “merely” by asking him questions, without giving him any answers. So, for example, I might show a class the set of arithmetical facts:
    4 x 6 = 24, 9 x 11 = 99, 14 x 16 = 224, and 24 x 26 = 624
    and ask the students what patterns they see. Here, a group discussion might be inspiring and calculators are allowed. The “Socratic” teacher will be able to lead the students to consider possible patterns without providing any. There are ways (as in the SEED methodology) to prevent one or two students from dominating, to bring shy or intimidated students into the discussion, and to prevent the class being totally stuck.
    Someone might see the pattern that the second number is always two more than the first. Led by the teacher to consider approximations, the pattern that the products are always more than the first number squared (say, 4^2 = 16) and less than the second number squared (say, 6^2 = 36) could be uncovered. Then, perhaps someone would have the insight to consider the square of the number between the pairs of numbers (5 being the number between 4 and 6), and finally see the pattern that the square of the number between is ALWAYS one less than the products of the two numbers (in other words, 4 x 6 = 5^2 -1). This yields the rather pretty pattern: (a – 1) x (a + 1) = a^2 – 1 for any number a, expressed in standard algebraic notation.
    This exploration might take a whole class period, whereas in a “standard” algebra class (like the one my son just completed), the students will be told to memorize (a – b) x (a + b) = a^2 – b^2, as one of a list of other “factoring facts.” I imagine only a few gifted students will understand that (a – b) x (a + b) = a^2 – b^2 contains all the patterns we’ve just been looking at (and more). I also imagine most students will easily forget this memorized knowledge the day after the final exam.

  10. I also prefer a more exploratory approach to math, and that’s how my husband and I have always approached math with our daughter. Math is fun for both of us, and she’s responded to that from a young age. My challenge has been to keep school from sucking all the fun of math (and everything else, for that matter.) The school district we’re in does use a more exploratory curriculum for math, but many parents are very unhappy about that; their complaint is that it lacks rigor. I’ll admit that a big drawback of the exploratory approach in elementary schools is that most elementary school teachers I’ve encountered are neither skilled enough or interested enough in math to do a good job teaching that way. We’ve had better luck in jr. high, where my daughter is just completing geometry this year.

  11. Nice story – I’m afraid my girls are heading in this direction. I’ve been collecting material online to help them become more ‘fluent’ in math – like practicing their multiplication with fun online games. I’ve been putting them in an online binder that they can click on to spend a few minutes practicing with. In this binder I put this really great blog about a mathematician who flunked math in 8th grade and went on to become a mathematician and go back to teaching to help kids understand the beauty of math. He considers math as art. It is really interesting and I think every parent should read it. You can find it in the last tab of this binder called ‘middle school math review’ –

  12. In a few years, a sizeable subset of those of your daughter’s classmates who “hate math” – both male and female – will be bragging to their peers of their incompetence in the subject. This will continue throughout their adult lives and into their adult endeavors.

  13. I loved math growing up (I’m a girl 🙂 !! It was, in fact, my favourite subject even though I consistently scored higher on written portions of standardized tests.
    Why did I love math? .. my Mom. She was a math teacher before she retired. And, not just a math teacher, she worked for and earned her doctorate in math while I was still in grade school. Wanting to be like her overrode any teasing I received from peers; and, there was quite a bit. It also helped that I met her colleagues and they were fun and entertaining. They even told math jokes and explained if I didn’t understand.
    Also, I have to add that many kind decent teachers over the years helped. One in particular saw that I had misunderstood the instructions for an assignment and gave me the opportunity to redo the work instead of simply giving me an ‘F’. That kind of treatment kept me from hating math simply because I made a mistake. My instructors were interested in the class learning the material more so than rote memorization.
    In the end, I didn’t major in math and become a professor, but I still love math regardless of how much I’ve forgotten over the years. It seems like with just a little practice all that knowledge would come back easily. Why? Because MATH ROCKS! 🙂

  14. Very interesting! Thanks very much for the detailed explanation, Alex. Your response to objection (1) seems entirely reasonable to me. Outcomes of Project SEED appear to refute objection (2) and objection (3) just looks like another indication of the great need for better training (and pay!) of K12 teachers…

  15. A topic near and dear to my own heart… thanks.
    I loved math and science in grade school and I would attribute it to my Dad (there’s hope, Alex!). We were a puzzle and game family and he would use that as the inspiration to get us to discover math for fun. After dinner, sometimes he would present us with a puzzle (if you can figure out how many cookies are in this paper bag, you can have them for dessert). Or, he would bring math into a card game (which card should you ask Tim for since you need a 3,5, or 8 and Tim has already put down a pair of 5’s?). He started this when I was pre-K, I’d guess. So, by the time 5th grade ennui would have hit, I already loved math. I still was bored by school math, but I knew it had its purpose of teaching me some skills I could use in puzzle math.
    There were times that he tried to engage us into math and we weren’t interested. And he would drop it and was fine with that. But, he would keep trying to find a math problem related to something we were interested in. I watch him now with my daughter and nieces and notice that he makes everything into a game (rolling a soccer ball down different slopes at the playground, running over different targets with a bicycle, allowing them to change the rules of a dice game).
    So, my belief is that it’s fantastic if kids can learn this in school. I support and embrace curriculum changes. But, in the meantime, if the schools in your area aren’t providing discovery based math, then DIY.
    And it doesn’t need to be just your daughter that you are engaging in science and math. It can be many kids (through scouts, offering to do a library program, or creating a neighborhood Family Fun night). Since my own daughter isn’t particularly skilled in math, I like to do projects with a group of her and her friends. Even if she doesn’t discover math and science, one of her friends might.

  16. I read the post, but skipped the comments… bear with me if there’s any repetition.
    In school, I also had a great dis-taste for math… though, my dad was an engineer, and my brother – two years behind me in school – was in a more advanced math class than I.
    First, kudos to your daughter for continuing to score well on math tests. My dis-taste showed in my grades.
    Second, I’m in finance now, use math every day, and truly enjoy it. It’s a shame that it took until my senior year in high school to find a physics teacher that made math fun (highlighting your “real-world-examples” instead of simply teaching the numbers and formulas).
    When my mind wandered in college I would write the binary code as high as I could (and found out why memory comes in 8 bytes, 16, 32, etc…). I calculated how many miles are in a light year (too big to remember) and I tried to memorize pi (now, I only remember 3.14159).
    Making math fun is important. I have a three year old who already asks daddy for money, so we’re learning how to count with pennies.

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