Barbie was right: Math is hard

The Is algebra necessary? debate is “insanely pointless,” writes Education Realist.

Elementary students do quite well in math, but stumble in higher grades when the math gets harder — even though their teachers know much more math, ER writes. “We have all forgotten the Great Wisdom of Barbie.” Math is hard.

In California, at least, tens of thousands of high school kids are sitting in math classes that they don’t understand, feeling useless, understanding deep in their bones that education has nothing to offer them. Meanwhile, well-meaning people who have never spent an hour of their lives trying to explain advanced math concepts to the lower to middle section of the cognitive scale pontificate about teacher ability, statistics vs. algebra, college for everyone, and other useless fantasies that they are allowed to engage in because until our low performers represent the wide diversity of our country to perfection, no one’s going to ruin a career by pointing out that this a pipe dream. And of course, while they’re engaging in these fantasies, they’ll blame teachers, or poverty, or curriculum, or parents, or the kids, for the fact that their dreams aren’t reality.

“Kids stuck in the hell of unfair expectations will go nowhere,” ER concludes.


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  1. Math is hard, but like anything, can be mastered with PROPER instruction and lots of practice and patience.

    I guess by that same standard, we should say is hard, and tell students to give up (meh).

    I just spent almost 10 days working out a solution to getting some programs to work on a previously unsupported operating system, by the Education Realist’s standard, I should have just given up after a couple of days, or not bothered to try at all.

    We would have never made it to the Moon if as a society we all thought like that.

    • Florida resident says:

      Read the article by J. Derbyshire
      ” No, We Can’t “,

      Respectfully yours , Florida resident.

      • Roger Sweeny says:

        Math is hard, but like anything, can be mastered with PROPER instruction and lots of practice and patience.

        Agreed. So is becoming a very good swimmer or guitar player. But that is no reason to force all young people to try to be very good swimmers or guitar players.

        1. Lots of them just aren’t interested–but “uninterested person” and “lots of practice and patience” almost never occur together. So we are doomed to failure if success means teaching everyone.

        2. Few people will ever use it.

        For those people who are interested and will use it, not giving up is very important. If you want to be Michael Phelps, you have to put in your ten hours in the pool even if you don’t want to. If you want to get certain programs to work, you have to put in ten days of work.

        Both those sentences deliberately started with “if.” We force young people to do lots of things in school that they are not intrinsically interested in. We should be damn sure that we can honestly tell them, “it is for your own good.”

        • Stacy in NJ says:

          Yes, self-motivation is the critical factor. I’ve got a 15 year old son who swims, plays guitar, and is …pretty good at math. He’d rather spend his time playing guitar with his friends or working as a lifeguard (he likes money – go figure). I bought a geometry reveiw book for him to work over the summer; he did about 20 lessons. The books is currently sitting on my coffee table and I become annoyed everytime I look at it – abandoned.

          Now, during the school year I do demand that he get reasonably good grades. He gets fun stuff taken away from him if he fails to do that. But, there’s a real difference between cajoling and motivating a kid to do the minimum required and getting him excited and enthusiastic enough about a subject like math to devote time enough to it to really master it. Outside of going all tiger mom on his behind, I haven’t found that answer to how to get a high ability kid intrinsically interested in something he’s not that interested in.

      • You are brave to post that publicly. People have been fired for passing that article around where I’ve been!

  2. Bill: Is it your position that everyone in America could learn, say, 400-level Calculus, and in a reasonable amount of time?

    If so, I suggest you’re in the pipe-dreamer category.

    If not, it’s equally likely that some portion of kids in the broad range of possibilities in America simply aren’t able to master HS algebra in a reasonable amount of time without such massive discouragement as to be counterproductive to them in the very attempt, no?

    The argument is not about “everyone” not doing things because things take more than a few days, or are just “hard”.

    (Remember what Realist said? “What these numbers do suggest is that as math gets harder, fewer and fewer students achieve mastery, or anything near it. . What they suggest, really, is that math knowledge doesn’t advance in a linear fashion”.

    It’s harder to do hard things, and learning is not linear. Why is noticing this a negative?

    Another decade of teaching won’t make the bottom decile in math ability Masters Of Algebra, especially without utterly demoralizing them. So why make them do it? It’s not helping, and arguably it’s hurting.)

  3. Sigivald,

    I’d be happy if high school graduates knew how to do the following:

    Add, Subtract, Multiply, Divide, Place Value, Fractions, Decimals, and
    some problem solving and analysis.

    When I go to the deli counter at a store and ask for 3/4’s of a pound of
    and the clerk tells me that the scale doesn’t know what 3/4’s is, I’m thinking:

    3/4’s is .75, which is a concept which should have been mastered in elementary school (grades 1-5).

    Also, unless you’re talking Differential Equations, most calculus courses are usually 100 or 200 level courses, and for a engineering major, they’re usually freshmen level courses, along with engineering physics I and II.

    Understanding basic math concepts well is important to everybody, not just people who enjoy math (anyone who disagrees with this, please tell me why students shouldn’t have to master the basics I’ve outlined above).

    Additionally, most people use algebra every day, they just don’t know it (comparison shopping, etc).

    If a person is trying to find out what a good deal is (item is x percent off) vs (item is y percent off), then they’ll need to understand some basic algebra or MS/HS math concepts.

  4. Katie Jones says:

    Math isn’t the easiest subject but math skills are important.

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      Ah, but which math skills are important? It’s good to be able to use rates, to be able to figure percentages, etc. However, almost no one will have to know how to use the quadratic formula or that sine squared theta plus cosine squared theta equals one.

      So let’s make sure everyone can do the former, and not waste teachers’ and students’ time on the latter. (Unless the students are interested or are planning on going on to something where it will be useful to know those things.)

  5. Roger,

    I believe my point is the same as yours, but sadly, many high school graduates cannot handle even basic math skills, which in the 1950’s through the 1970’s would have been commonplace in most if not all elementary and middle schools.

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      Yes, I think we agree. However, I am not nearly as sure as you are that these skills were “commonplace in most if not all elementary and middle schools” “in the 1950?s through the 1970?s.”

      Because there were no calculators then, students were certainly better at mental math, like calculating in their head what the change was when a ten dollar bill paid for a $7.47 item. But beyond that, I’m not at all sure. One bit of imperfect evidence: For decades, lots of adults have said, “I’m just no good at math.” That includes ones who were students in the 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s. People who say this don’t seem to feel ashamed, but do seem to feel like lots of people are the same way.

  6. I know there is a right/left brain thing, but the reason so many people are ‘just no good at math’ is (IMO) that they received really piss poor instruction at math in the home and in elementary school.

    Also, the advent of the scientific electronic calculator hasn’t helped students master basic math facts, something I’ve seen first hand myself during an exam covering basic stats (no calculators allowed)…the students 40 and older (four of us), and a engineering major in his early 20’s averaged a score of better than 90% on the exam.

    The class average was 68% (raw score), and covered topics like mean, mode, variance, std. deviation, and some probability.

    This was a entry level college course, btw.

  7. I absolutely do not think that “all” should be required to take algebra, let alone anything above that. “All” normal-IQ or close-to-normal kids should be expected to master arithmetic (4 operations, fractions, decimals, percentages, practical stuff like interest rates etc) by the end of 8th grade. That means a SERIOUS overhaul of k-8 math; as was said above, Singapore style curriculum and explicit instruction. Calculators should be forbidden before algebra 1 – and then only because the PSAT/SAT/ACTs have caved on the issue, so kids need to be comfortable with the @#$$ things.

    For those on the HS college-prep path (which should not be “all”), more math should be required, in the usual sequence (with some variation post-precalc according to intended field). For those heading to voc ed (If I’m dreaming, I might as well make it good), the amount and type of math should reflect the specific program. I really don’t care if my hairdresser knows higher math.

    • She’s not just your hairdresser, she’s also a fellow citizen. Shouldn’t she be prepared to exercise her franchise in a more astute way than pulling the ballot for “more bread and circuses” vs. “other”?

      If we’re dreaming, we may as well dream big!

      • Roger Sweeny says:

        If we’re dreaming, we may as well dream big!

        NO! NO! NO! NO! NO!

        You can dream about your hairdresser knowing higher math. And you can force your hairdresser to TAKE higher math. But you can’t make her LEARN it. And you almost certainly won’t.

        You will have forced her to do what the article complains about. She’ll be “sitting in math classes that they don’t understand, feeling useless, understanding deep in their bones that [this class] has nothing to offer them.”

      • I referred to dreaming about wide availability of serious vo-tech options.

        Despite not having taken math above geometry and admitting that she understood neither algebra nor geometry, she follows current events and issues and is definitely in the “informed citizen” category. She has also mastered arithmetic, including mental calculations.

  8. Stayed up late finishing all the levels on DragonBox, a new algebra app that is fun and addicting… this could change the conversation…