Why Most People Say They Hate Math

Many people say they hate math - but they do it everyday. So why the negativity? Search in your own past to find where your path might have changed! http://mathfour.com/?p=10139People do math everyday. They don’t hate math – really.

They say they hate math because they have a yukky memory of something that happened in a math class a long, long time ago.

I call it The Event.

And everybody I know has one.

It’s the moment in your life where you’re forced to ask the question:

Am I bad at math?

What The Event Looks Like

Everyone’s Event is different. Sometimes it’s when a math teacher laughed at them in class. Sometimes it’s when a parent told them everyone in their family was bad at math.

Sometimes it’s when they asked a question and got an answer that didn’t make sense.

Which was what my Event looked like.

Squares and Rectangles

I was in the fifth grade. We were studying geometry.

I read the definition for a rectangle in the book:

A rectangle is a four-sided shape where every angle is a right angle.

I read the definition for a square in the book:

A square has four equal sides and every angle is a right angle.

I thought about it. A lot.

I went up to Mrs. Skinner’s desk and said, “So I think I understand, but I want to make sure. Every square is a rectangle, but not every rectangle is a square. Right?”

She said, “No. A square is a square. It’s not a rectangle. Squares are squares and rectangles are rectangles.”

I was puzzled.

I went back to my desk and read the definitions some more.

And I thought about it. A lot.

After I was sure. I went back to Mrs. Skinner’s desk.

“No, I really think it’s true. Every square is a rectangle, but not every rectangle is a square.”

She said, “Look, a square is not a rectangle. It’s a square. A square can’t be a rectangle.”

Even after I asked her to look at the definitions in the book, she stood firm.

So I went back to my desk.

And I asked the question:

Am I bad at math?

It made perfect sense. I read the book. I thought I understood it. But the teacher (a super authority who knows everything) told me I was wrong.

Therefore, I must not have the ability to read a math book and understand things.

The best conclusion was, “Yes, I am bad at math.”

I’m NOT bad at math!

I refused to believe that I was wrong. The definitions were there in print. And I felt my reasoning was right. So I came to a different conclusion:

Even though Mrs. Skinner was a nice lady, she didn’t know what she was talking about.

I am NOT bad at math. In fact, I’m better than my teacher.

Fast forward 35 years – and here I am. Writing a math blog, teaching and tutoring math, and generally being a thorn in the side of anyone who’s math-averse.

But most kids don’t come to this conclusion.

Most kids answer “Am I bad at math?” with yes.

Not every kid is ornery like I was.

Luckily there are some.

Many turn out to be mathematicians, engineers, math teachers, etc. And some are just in the minority, quietly sipping a cocktail at a party while others proclaim their distaste of math.

If you’re bad at math, then why wouldn’t you hate it?

We like what we’re good at. And we certainly don’t like what we believe we’re bad at.

So why wouldn’t people say they hate it?

After all, I hate magic because I don’t know how to do it.

What was your Event?

What was your Event? What conclusion did you come to? And how do you handle others that decided on the “yes”?

Share your thoughts in the comments and ask others on twitter.



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18 Responses to Why Most People Say They Hate Math

  1. Strange readings and interpretations of Definitions continue through all levels, but the sad thing about elementary teachers is that they are expected to be great at everything.. Maybe she was wonderful at social studies.
    She read the and as being a necessary condition (correctly) but assumed names were exclusive.
    Had you come across it, she may not have even thought of them as quadrilaterals because they were “Special”
    Actually with that definition of a square it might NOT be a quadrilateral, or any plane figure, it could be four adjacent edges of a cube not all in the same plane.

    • Interesting thoughts, Pat. I think it would have benefitted me if she would have talked through it, though.

      And you’re right – Elementary teachers are expected to be good at everything. But isn’t it okay to ask them to explore, wonder and doubt too?

  2. You are much kinder than I! I always attribute it to a bad math teacher – there are so many of them out there! But perhaps misguided would be a better term…though some truly deserve the term awful. I luckily had thick skin and still LOVE math! I am even thinking about it as a next career once my kids are a bit bigger…my first career was engineering…

  3. My experience, from extensive conversations on planes, trains and at cocktail parties, is that lots of people proclaim “I was never any good at math(s)” — indeed, proclaim it almost proudly, in a way that they’d never say “I was never any good at reading”.
    On further questioning, it almost always transpires that they were actually quite competent until some event happened, and here in the US it seems that it is often the time that they had a teacher in a mathematics class who, like your geometry teacher, could do the bare minimum, but couldn’t teach. Unfortunately, it seems, at least from anecdotes, that it is frequently in high school, that the teacher is a coach for a sports team who also needs to be teaching academic classes, and is put in charge of teaching mathematics to a class which needs a great teacher, not a great sports coach.

    I was very fortunate to have a father who was on my side in my moments in mathematics, and also to have teachers who were good enough to recognize ability. Many, even most, children have fewer advantages.

    Neil

    • Indeed, Neil.

      Although I have to say that one of my best teachers in high school was a coach. He told us that not everyone learns math the same way, and that if you didn’t understand his way, you could ask a fellow student. Then he gave everyone permission to mull around the room, if you felt you were going to be helpful to others, and be a peer tutor.

      This was my first math teaching “job”… and you know the rest.

      Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing!

  4. My event was when I was five, maybe just six. I had worked out that if you did operations in a different order you got a different answer. I showed that to my teacher and she told me she wasn’t supposed to teach me this, but showed me how parentheses worked. I was so excited to be learning something before I was supposed to, that I decided I must be good at maths. I can still feel that moment today, over 45 years later. Thanks Mrs Coventry.

    • Thank you so much, Dr Nic, for sharing your very positive Event! That’s wonderful to read – I want to hug Mrs Coventry!

  5. My six year older sister had to go to summer school because she flunked Algebra so I just assumed I also had to go to summer school for Algebra after my freshman year. I did and learned a lot when all I had was Math homework to do. I did not go into a career requiring Math. I just retired from a successful career as a children’s Librarian.

    Ps I still don’t understand how to figure out the word problems when two cars starting at opposite places on a road, going different speeds, will pass each other!

    • Wanna know a secret… I don’t know how to do those problems either! I draw it out and experiment because the “method” never seems to stick with me. It just doesn’t make sense.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  6. My high school teacher catered to the ones who caught on quickly. He made fun of my class to the next hour class calling us a bunch of idiots. I shut down quickly and lost what little confidence I had. I feared that if I asked any questions that I would be the brunt of his name calling in his other classes. When I graduated from high school, my frustration and anger of not succeeding in my high school math classes fueled my fire to start with “bozo” math in college. I was amazed at how much I enjoyed algebra and looked forward to the challenge and was successful at it!
    I succeeded in making an A+ in both College Algebra and Trigonometry!
    I am a high school science teacher (who uses quite a bit of math!) and I treat my students with the dignity they deserve when it comes to learning ANY concept!

    • We learn a lot about teaching from good teachers – but we learn so much more from terrible ones. Seems you’re taking your experience and turning it around to do great things in service of the students!

  7. I was in school when there was still “tracking.” The brighter students moved a quicker pace, the middle students moved at an “average” pace and the students who struggled were grouped together and moved more slowly so they would actually learn the concepts. I was in the highest track, but in the lower half of that group for math. This made me hate math and believe I wasn’t good at it. It was only as an adult that I realized that I was actually pretty good at math. It would never be my choice to study math at the college level, but I am confident in my abilities to use math and even to teach it (with the help of excellent curriculum) to my children.

    • I remember the tracking, too, Christine! What a horrid thing they did to our generation (and are still doing in some places!).

      I’m so glad you’ve turned it around and are able to help create great math learners in your kids!

  8. I had a teacher who was busy dealing with personal events in his life and kept giving me the wrong grades. And if I presented him with this reality after averaging my test scores, he got progressively angrier, so I stopped. Not exactly the event where I thought I was bad, but where I felt like I wouldn’t get A’s.

    • Still, Kirsten, it stuck pretty solidly. Even being good at something and not being properly recognized can be an Event. It definitely taints the other things you do in life.

      Thanks so much for sharing your story.

  9. I’m not bad at math. I do a lot of math in my couponing. I can tell you which item is a better deal based on price/size/coupon.

    I just don’t like math.

    There.

    I said it.

    Will you still be my friend?

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