Math, how did it become the subject we love to hate?
As a student, I loved math. Yet, I often shied away from saying this in public, lest my peers began to detest me. Who loves algebra, trigonometry, and geometry? "Me," the isosceles-triangle formula lover wanted to shout out. But the consensus in the classroom, school, neighbourhood, and beyond was to hate the subject, so I stayed quiet.
You could score well in math, even if you got the answer incorrect. Say, you are asked to calculate the age of son and father based on some assumptions. You are doing it right, but somehow, in the end, the age of son turns out to be more than that of the father. Even if the answer is incorrect, if you followed the right steps for calculations you could score! Now, that in my head was a jackpot. And it is something, I struggled hard to explain to my friends. Besides, I did enjoy studying the subject.
The thought of math as the most hated subject always made me uncomfortable. Why do a lot of people hate the subject? Who tells our children to dislike or like a subject? I put forth the question to young minds. Answers that I received were amusing and interesting, to say the least. 'It's cool to say that you hate math.' 'Only nerds are good at math, and nobody wants to be labelled as one.' 'When I grow up, I will drive from destination A to destination B, or fly, or be onboard a ship.
So, why do I need to know the km/h or the difference between upstream/downstream?' 'Why am I being taught the subject, which seems to be irrelevant in real-life situations?' Fair enough. In retrospect, I must confess that I too didn't know 'what' I could become after studying math at college.
Yet, parents continue to drive their kids to extra coaching classes in the subject. A bad grade in math is looked down upon. But come to think of it, what really drives kids away from the subject? The next time your child says he/she doesn't like the subject - prod to arrive at the reason behind it. Is it hard to study? Do they not like the teacher? Are they made to feel stupid when they get a simple problem wrong? Or is it just because we closed our minds to the subject generations ago?
Some time ago, I had met a math teacher from Finland who had 30 years of experience.
Maarit Rossi, one of the world's top ten teachers, was in Dubai as one of the judges for the Global Teacher Prize Competition 2017. In 2016, she was among the top ten finalists in the competition. She was cheerful and warm. "I spent the first 10 years of my career teaching (math) like other teachers - just like I was taught. Then it hit me - the children were not liking or learning math because we were not teaching them well," she smiled. She's now dedicated her life to fix this problem.
She reminded me of my math teacher in Grade 11. She was good, helped me discover the logic in problem-solving and got me further addicted to the subject. I wasn't a nerd, but a true-blue backbencher. Yet, I was good at math and it could be because of the teachers I've had. They kept my interest alive in the subject. In fact, at one point I even wanted to pursue the subject further in college. Math (Hons) sounded good. It's a different story that I ended up as a writer - finding my calling in words rather than numbers.
But the point is, we can make math cool and fun to learn. We can spark their interest in the subject creative ways. Movies, for instance, can be a good way. There are some recent ones on the lives of different mathematicians: Super 30 (Bollywood flick based on mathematician Anand Kumar), The Man Who Knew Infinity (Hollywood film based on mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan), and forthcoming Shakuntala Devi Human Computer starring Bollywood actress Vidya Balan.
There are plenty of other ways, too. The first step, however, is to drive away from the fear associated with the subject. Let's talk to our children and do that.
This piece was first published in Khaleej Times.