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Fear No Math, Hate No Math

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Given how we’re trained to think about mathematics today, it’s little wonder that so many students begin dreading math early on and regardless of their potential or aptitude for it. Whether it’s parents letting kids off the hook by agreeing that “math is the hardest” or “math is no fun” or “math is pointless” (likely in order to mask their own insecurities regarding mathematics) or television characters fearing mathematics for just such a variety of reasons or even Teen Talk Barbie, we’re constantly told and told again just how “awful” math can be. As TV Tropes explains of much of television today,

Irrational fear of the theorem of Pythagoras is inevitable. Even the most basic of long division is portrayed as mind-bogglingly difficult, especially for parents helping their grade-schoolers do homework. Usually when trying to portray math in this light, writers (particularly in visual media like film) will show a piece of paper/whiteboard/blackboard full of abominably complex equations; use of integral signs,Gratuitous Greekletters (particularly pi and sigma), daemonic occultist geometries, the accursed variables ‘x’ and ‘y’ and such forth are prevalent. Any scene where mathematics is being taught will invariably result in children being bored, falling asleep, or in a few cases, succumbing to gibbering schizophrenia from the Cyclopean confusion of it all (thus the Mad Mathematician).

In other words, we’re all being told to fear math as something that’s impossible to understand or something that’s only for the socially inept (consider, for example, The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon character) or something that we simply don’t need to know (consider, for example, The Big Bang Theory’s maddeningly slow and dull-witted Penny character). All of this social reinforcement that “math is simply too hard,” can convince students who would otherwise enjoy math or who face challenges with math early on that it’s not worth their time and that it’s normal to hate and misunderstand mathematics. As PBS explains, there are a number of core skills that students can struggle with for a variety of reasons over the course of their K-12 educational careers, which can end up negatively coloring their opinions, feelings, and success with math if they aren’t encouraged to enjoy or pursue mathematics. According to PBS, these core skills include: “incomplete mastery of number facts,” “computational weakness,” “difficulty transferring knowledge, making connections,” “incomplete understanding of the language of math,” and “difficulty comprehending the visual and spatial aspects and perceptual difficulties.”

And, while each of these challenges come with their own unique signs and degrees of intensity, each of these also have their own set of creative solutions. Mathematics, after all, isn’t something we can simply give up on. It isn’t something to be feared or relegated into the spheres of the antisocial or the hopelessly mysterious or pointless. Mathematics is a unique and beautiful language that can give us hope of a new, better, healthier, and richer world. So, if math is something you’re struggling with, regardless of your age, regardless of whether or not you’re a parent or student, seek out tutoring services and mathematics courses near you to help you practice and enhance your mathematical skills. These are important not only for various careers (ranging from businesspersons to scientists to electricians to veterinarians to computer programmers), but can also be useful for boosting your self-confidence and even in protecting yourself against Of course, we’re still learning more day by day regarding how we learn and perceive mathematics. Just take this recent Stanford study of why some children seem to learn math more easily than others:

In a study of third-graders’ responses to math tutoring, Stanford scientists found that the size and wiring of specific brain structures predicted how much an individual child would benefit from math tutoring. … The research is the first to use brain scans to look for a link between math-learning abilities and brain structure or function, and also the first to compare neural and cognitive predictors of kids’ responses to tutoring. In addition, it provides information on the differences between how children and adults learn math, and could help researchers understand the origins of math-learning disabilities.

However, regardless of ability, here are a few quick tips to help students of all ages and levels combat some of core skill challenges to learning and excelling in mathematics:

  • Improve your handwriting: this may seem to be a silly, unimportant thing, but it’s actually a common problem that many people face — they’ll be keeping notes or writing out different components of a problem, only to misread something due to poor or unclear handwriting and lead themselves astray
  • Improve your note-taking: make certain to keep clear and complete notes throughout the entirety of your equations. You won’t always have to do this, but, for a certain amount of time while learning and practicing new types and branches of mathematics, keeping thorough and complete notes of each new step will not only help you reach more precise conclusions, but will also help you better identify any specific areas or components of the problem that you may be struggling with. Keeping such complete notes will also provide you with a study guide to refer back to as you move forward.
  • Always have a stress ball handy: sometimes it can be easy to become overwhelmed and fidgety when faced with whole sheets of math problems. Having something like a stress ball ready at hand can go a long way to calming and refocusing you by providing an outlet for some of that distracting adrenaline.
  • Rewrite and/or breakdown word problems until you’ve isolated and understood each different component of the puzzle. Word problems are occasionally written in such a way as to trick or mask some component of a mathematical problem, but it is often the case that word problems are laid out in hopes of being as clear and straightforward as possible. Either way, they can often pose unique challenges to students of all ages as word problems force students to tackle two very different challenges at once: mathematics and critical reading. So, read each problem thoroughly and rewrite each sentence however necessary in order to assure that you’ve understood and taken account of each aspect.  
  • But, mostly, don’t forget to take some comfort in the straightforwardness of mathematics. In a world wherein relationships, socializing, and politics can be a constant wave of stress and uncertainty, don’t forget that mathematics can provide you with a simpler, creative, and elegant way of viewing and exploring the world — one with clear and often inarguable answers.
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