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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

What I learned from studying math

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On Medium, Alex Korchinski writes about what he learned by majoring in applied math — other than math.

He learned to tolerate frustration and pain, build his toolbox of problem-solving tactics and check his work, writes Korchinski. Most all, he learned to “practice persistence.”

In a famous study, classrooms of American and Japanese first graders were given an impossible math problem. The American students gave up after less than 30 seconds, while the Japanese students persisted for an hour before the proctors stopped them to confess that the problem was unsolvable. (How cruel!). The grand difference came down to Asian cultures prioritizing practice and persistence in education, along with embracing that struggle is a large part of the learning process. In the Western world, the idea of inherent intelligence is pushed and prized, which undercuts the importance of educational struggle. . . . Give an American kid a math problem, and chances are they’ll squirm, whine, complain and hit you with that tired refrain: “When am I ever going to use this in the real world?” Answering that question directly is a mistake. When are you going to need to factor a polynomial in the “real world”? Maybe never, kid. Especially not with that attitude. But when are you going to face a problem that requires focusing for more than 30 seconds? All the goddamn time.

Korchinski earned his degree, then moved away from math, he concludes. “Six years into my career, I can say that being comfortable with numbers and data has been useful, but what has proved invaluable are the qualities that math imbued in me —patience, attention to detail, humility and persistence.”

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