I’m Not Bad at Math, Just Math Homework

Reading Time: 4 minutes
Random numbers in various fonts filling what appears to be a series of blackboards stretching into the distance
Image by morebyless, Flickr Commons, https://flic.kr/p/fmHjf2 CC BY 2.0

Some people have a math phobia. “I’m bad at math,” they protest before anyone can ask them to do any sort of computation. It’s so common it’s almost accepted as the norm, and people throw it out there blithely, almost jokingly. Just yesterday I said something of the sort to a coworker. She’s our library’s assistant director, and she was frantically trying to gather end-of-the-year statistics into a proper report for the higher-ups, and I said, “That’s why I don’t want to be a director. Too many numbers.”

But I’m not bad at math. In fact, sometimes I go out of my way to do math, scribbling geometric equations in effort to lay out the garden or resize a sewing pattern, and I even find it fun. It’s like a puzzle! Try to tell my high school self that and she’d scoff. But my college self had her eyes opened in her Teaching Elementary School Math class. Math was totally fun if you taught it correctly!

Problem is, it’s hard to get away with teaching it correctly, particularly when the school demands homework assignments. Which, by practical necessity, usually means worksheets. Worksheets that swim with too many numbers, and attempt to put into words concepts that are easier to explain by just doing it.

I’m helping my sick child work on her makeup homework now. “Which is biggest, seven-tenths, two-fifths, or eight-ninths?” “Eight-ninths,” my brain answered immediately, but that wouldn’t help her any. She needed to learn how to figure it out herself, and explain on the page how she figured it out, and I… had no clue how I’d done that. “I just saw the fractions in my head, somehow,” I told her sheepishly. “I guess, like… this?” and I drew some rectangles and split them into sections. It’s a decent strategy, and one that is, in some clearer way, taught in school, and it’s now the strategy she’s using to solve the rest of the problems.

In real life, you use whatever math strategy works for you. My strategy for comparing fractions comes from years of sewing—those rectangles I drew were really the rulers I see in my head after measuring so many seams. Other people with other hobbies might actually find a method involving pure numeric equations easier. Someone who works in a pizzeria likely splits all fractions into pie graphs in their head.

But in school, you have to learn all the strategies, and you have to explain each strategy, and you have to write out

every

single

step

of said strategies as you complete them.

That was what killed me in tenth-grade geometry. Writing every single step of a geometric proof. It was too easy to skip steps when I could SEE the results without having to go through every step.

Of course, some people like that kind of thinking. They find it soothing to break out each step of the process systematically.

Whereas, I was the weirdo kid who actually liked word problems best. I know! Everybody complains about word problems! But what I liked about them fits with how I do math: they tied into real-life situations. They gave us a reason to do the math, a problem with a clear goal. I use word problems all the time! The recipe for homemade chocolate chip cookies needs to be doubled (because even a double recipe will be gone in three days). The original recipe calls for 2-and-a-quarter cups flour. So how much flour will we need? “Why do I even need to learn fractions?!” the sick child protested. “Fractions are frankly the math I use most in real life,” I replied.* Chocolate chip cookies depend upon them.

There’s room for every kind of brain in mathematics, and to be honest, early elementary education gets this better than advanced grades (even upper elementary). People joke in memes or complain to the world about Common Core Math, but the Common Core texts my kids’ school uses for math are awesome in kindergarten and first grade. I was thoroughly impressed the first time I opened one. They got it. They were using many different strategies to actually show kids how numbers work, rather than forcing rote memorization or teaching vague rules. But by third grade, the homework had multiplied like the times tables the students now had to memorize, and now math class is just as tedious under Common Core as it was when I was in third grade. Too many numbers.

This, at heart, probably has more to do with the concept of homework in general than math. If teachers weren’t required to assign a certain amount of homework each night, they wouldn’t have to fill pages and pages of tedious numbers, and kids like my daughter and I—and her brother and dad—who have ADHD** and no patience for tedium, wouldn’t grow up thinking math is evil.

So my thesis, in writing this, went from “math class should be more inclusive of the variety of mathematical thinking in people” to “maybe this is why we should homeschool” to “it’s all the fault of HOMEWORK, really, we just need to ban homework.” So whatever conclusion you want to draw from it, go ahead. Just be aware that there’s more than one way to think about math, and we’re all better off finding the way that works best for our own brains.


*Actually, I probably use the addition and subtraction of numbers with two decimal places—i.e. money—the most, but that goes without saying.

**In our family’s case, ADHD has a definite effect on each of our feelings about math homework—my husband even has a certified learning disability where he can’t sort numbers out to calculate them.*** But obviously math phobia is a widespread issue that affects neurotypical people, too, so there must be more to it than an inability to handle tedium.

***And yet he has no trouble with complicated RPG stats. This probably ties into my original point about tying math into real life things you enjoy.

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