Why Math Isn’t Fun

This is the second in a series on Math & Vulnerability, inspired by Brené Brown.

Math isn't fun when it's focused on getting the right answer!I’m thinking about joining the 31 Days Challenge over at Nesting Place. A friend suggested that I write on “31 Days of Making Math Fun.”

I cringed.

It’s an honest request. But math just isn’t fun.

And it’s really hard to make it be fun without looking like another dumb grownup pushing horse hockey around.

The biggest thing contributing to my “math isn’t fun” attitude is…

The Right Answer Hoax

A child can’t learn math without uncertainty and risk. But grown-ups heighten the emotional exposure by enforcing the “get the right answer” attitude.

We train our kids from an early age that getting the correct answer in math is the goal. It’s the Right Answer Hoax.

We support the Right Answer Hoax inside the classroom and out.

When a child is called on and gets the wrong answer, we often say, “That’s incorrect, does someone else have the right answer?”

And in social situations, grown-ups will say things like, “The good thing about math is there’s always one right answer.” Children hear this and internalize it.

And it contributes to the Right Answer Hoax.

Why Math Isn’t Fun

When we say “math is fun” we’re downplaying emotional exposure.

Grownups have already set up math as emotionally traumatizing – the right answer is where it’s at. And if you can’t get the right answer, then, well, shame on you.

And now we want to say, “Wow – math is so fun!”

I’m calling horse crap on this one.

If we perpetuate the Right Answer Hoax, we have to call a spade a spade: Math is brutal. Math is mean.

And math class is the most shameful experience you’ll ever have.

How to make math fun – really.

There are tons of programs out there trying to show that math is fun. But students return to classrooms and homeschools that uphold the Right Answer Hoax.

So to allow math to be fun, we have to debunk the Right Answer Hoax.

Which is freaking hard to do.

What are your ideas on debunking the Right Answer Hoax? Share your thoughts in the comments and keep your eyes peeled for the next in the series – Debunking the Right Answer Hoax.

This is the second in a series on Math & Vulnerability, inspired by Brené Brown.

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4 Responses to Why Math Isn’t Fun

  1. Great post – and I love Brene Brown’s work. I’ve learned so much from her!

    I’m a former math teacher who banished the right answer police from my classroom and made math fun (accessible might be a better word) for my students. I totally understand where you’re coming from – if our students go into a classroom where getting the right answer is paramount, they may develop math anxiety (I had it in college, one reason why I tried to teach math differently) and not enjoy the challenge of working through a problem.

    I always told my kids that it’s good when they don’t know something or make a mistake, because that’s how I knew what to teach them. This was really hard to do if the teachers above/below my grade, the administration, and parents weren’t supportive, but I wanted my students to love math and relish the challenge, so I persisted.

    I can’t wait to see what you do with this topic!

    • It’s weird in a college class, too, Kelly. I have students asking, “Well, which is right?”

      So I’ve had to constantly say, “We have no right or wrong answers in here.” Or even, “We’re not going to play make-right or make-wrong.”

      Today I had a student put a problem on the board and when he saw an error (in the middle of our discussion) he tried to approach the board to fix it. I told him to sit down – we need his error to see how thinking happens.

      He was quite annoyed, but sat down anyway.

  2. If getting the right answer isn’t the goal, what is? Sure, I may have liked math class (and all my classes in high school) more if I didn’t have to worry about getting it right, but I don’t know if I’d have learned anything.

    • Frank, in the long run, yes – the right answer is the goal. However, getting the right answer doesn’t move you to learning. And worrying about getting it right sets you back even more.

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