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Is math class hard?
Posted:
Aug 30, 1999 2:03 PM


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Note: Thank you to Bill Juraschek for sharing this ...
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<bold>Is Math Class Hard?
</bold>By Bill Juraschek
The flap last year over the Barbie doll who said "Math class is hard." brings up an interesting question: Should we tell students that learning mathematics is easy? After all, vast numbers of people think otherwisemany mathematics majors as well as Barbies! What could be the negative results of telling students that learning mathematics is easy? I can see several.
When we assure skeptical students that learning a particular topic is easy, we are denying them the validity of their feelings. Who are we to tell students they do not feel a certain way? When <italic>they</italic> sense a topic is difficult to learn, that is what <italic>they </italic>feel and believe, regardless of what someone else tells them. (When you have been apprehensive about making a presentation or about a principal's upcoming evaluation visit, and a colleague glibly offers "Oh, don't worry. It isn't so bad." does the comment make you feel better?) To help students overcome any debilitating beliefs about their capability to learn mathematics, we cannot glibly deny the reality of those beliefs. After all, feelings and beliefs are part of the personal "knowledge" students bring to a learning situation and rely upon to give meaning to new material. Students' feelings and beliefs are part of the context of learning.
When we tell Charles that learning some particular mathematical skill or concept is easy, and Charles does not catch on quickly, what could he think? Very likely he thinks he must really be dumb. The "math avoiders" with whom I have discussed this agree firmly. When their teacher tells them problems 1 and 2 are easy, and they have trouble, they prefer not to discuss it. They are too embarrassed to ask their teacher for help. After many such encounters, they simply conclude that mathematics is not for them and give up.
Telling students that learning mathematics is easy implies mathematics is trivial. This is no comfort for those who do catch on fairly easily. It implies that the students who do learn some mathematics have not accomplished anything of particular note. Obviously nothing is farther from the truth. A student who learns significant subject matter easily should be aware of his or her strengths.
Finally, when we tell students that learning a particular topic is easy we are implicitly feeding the natural desire for all learning to be quick and easy, and this is not be a good idea. More than one sage has pointed out that the most valuable achievements in life are often the most difficult to attain. (And don't we all believe mathematics is valuable?) We must help our students see beyond immediate, easy gratification and learn the value of effort and perseverance.
Comparisons of the attitudes of Asian and American teachers reveal that Asian teachers are much more likely to attribute the success of their students to effort, while American teachers attribute success to ability. Maybe we can help our students significantly by being honest and telling them learning mathematics might not be easy, but it is not impossible. Better that students believe their effort and hard work can lead to success. As the following story attests, this attitude worked well for at least one American father.
A few years ago a friend of mine had asked some high school seniors to describe something their parents had done that "made a difference" in their lives. One girl recalled something her father once told her that she believed helped her become an honor student. When she was in seventh grade she had whined to her father that writing a term paper was hard. He said simply, "Well, you can do hard things." She had wanted commiseration, but she got something that, in the long run, was better: realism coupled with an expression of confidence. I suggest we tell students who say math is hard that they can do hard things, and we will help.
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Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
Carbondale, IL 629014610 USA
Fax: (618) 4534244
Phone: (618) 4534241 (office)
(618) 4578903 (home)
Email: jbecker@siu.edu
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