‘Bad at math’ no more
Last Updated on 15 March 2023
By the end of high school, exposure to TED talks and YouTubers had made me believe that math could be fantastically entertaining, under the right conditions. But like many students who stumble upon this discovery, I immediately distinguished between “school math” and, as Khan Academy calls it, “math for fun and glory.” I began to assume that we were all doomed to suffer through school math, and that math classes like mine were the only way to learn the skills needed to eventually participate in fun math.
My first college math class was essentially like high school but performed at twice the speed with half the student participation. It was disappointing to realize that I enjoyed math just as little in college as I did in high school and I quickly became aware that I was behind many of my peers in the class.
I felt as though I could never catch up. As math classes are required for nearly all STEM majors, I felt that I had been turned away at the door to success – that I would never achieve a high-paying or prestigious career, all because I was bad at math.
For the winter quarter, I signed up for an education class: Professor Jo Boaler’s “How to Learn Math: For Students.” The class turned out to be my chance to get over the barriers that were stopping me from taking more math.
On the first day, the class split off into groups of four. Each group received a looped piece of rope. Everyone was told to keep their hand on the rope at all times and make shapes such as a cube or a pyramid and to tell the teacher over if they got one they thought was good.
Maybe – just maybe – I could learn to like math.
I remember my stomach sinking; I didn’t think we were actually going to be doing math and the instructions made me squirm. I was sure I’d fail and was afraid of trying, especially in a group of people I’d never met. However, I found myself deeply engaged in the process, and I loved working with my group and using real objects we could manipulate with our hands: though I knew I was applying “school math” concepts, I had a lot of fun.
I came out of class that day energized and astounded. Maybe – just maybe – I could learn to like math.
As the course continued, I developed a range of emotions: anger about the educational system’s failures, excitement about the prospects for change, and wonder about my own shift in perspective.
Two particular moments stand out to me that changed the way I thought about mathematics and myself: the paper folding task and our field trip to an elementary school.
The paper-folding task became very difficult when we were asked to find two methods of folding a square half the size of the original sheet of paper.
The first method was easy to find, but finding another way to look at the problem stumped me. I thought about it in class for a long time. Then I took the paper back to my dorm and thought about it there. Then Kate, a classmate, and I sat in the back of our math class and passed notes about it during the lecture. Then I had a debate with several of my dorm mates about it.
I cheated once (ripping the paper) and then, finally, thought I had discovered a new mathematically correct method. I showed my new method to another classmate, David, who promptly proved it did not actually produce a square of the right size, putting me back at square one. Even now, I haven’t figured it out.
I have never in my life invested in a math problem in this way. I was hooked. I still have no interest in searching for the answer on the internet – that would ruin the puzzle, and I want to figure it out on my own. In this problem, I saw for myself the power of applying the research we had been studying.
I got to do math out loud, collaborating with others, with visual and kinesthetic aids. I was not faced with rote memorization and pitfalls where failure would mean lost points or low grades. Instead, I face a challenge that required creativity and many attempts, and I loved it.
A field trip we took to an elementary school also mattered greatly to my own math transformation. In talking to the fifth-grade students there, particularly the girls, I was reminded of what it’s like to be a student in an elementary school. I began to reflect on my own math experience as a child, and on the core beliefs that I had always held about my own abilities. When we read Carol Dweck’s research on the effect of ideas of giftedness on students, particularly girls, in week six, everything started to make sense.
I realized that by the time I was in fifth grade, I already thought I was bad at math, and that I was approaching problems in a different way than the way I watched these elementary students approach them.
Fifth-grade me thought I was “naturally” bad, that I did not have whatever skill the “math geniuses” had. At the time, I really didn’t care too much about this. As we discussed in class, many elementary school teachers are not too fond of math themselves, and I was more worried about impressing my teachers than I was about my career prospects – and I was told repeatedly that I was “gifted” in other subjects.
However, as math became more and more valued in my education, the “math geniuses” got more and more respect, and I maintained the idea that I was not “gifted” at math. I developed a complex of shame around the subject. I hated math because I went into every problem certain I would fail, and equally certain that everyone would think less of me when I did so.
Interacting with these fifth-grade girls – their confidence in correcting me, their level-headed, calm approach to problems, and their excitement about participation – forced me to begin reconsidering not just my procedures and habits, but my entire mindset surrounding math.
I am grateful that I got to participate in this class. Throughout this quarter, I have seen how so-called school math and fun math can be one and the same, and my perspective on math has shifted so much – I have learned that math can be full of creativity and collaboration.
I have also realized that I am not bad at math, and I should not view it as an enemy. In fact, I plan to take more math classes in the future. I am no longer afraid of math, and I am determined not to let it prevent me from achieving my goals.
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