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Topic: Is math class hard?
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Jerry P. Becker

Posts: 16,576
Registered: 12/3/04
Is math class hard?
Posted: Aug 30, 1999 2:03 PM
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Note: Thank you to Bill Juraschek for sharing this ...


<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
otherwise-many 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.



Jerry P. Becker

Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction

Southern Illinois University

Carbondale, IL 62901-4610 USA

Fax: (618) 453-4244

Phone: (618) 453-4241 (office)

(618) 457-8903 (home)



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