Why Aren’t Students Learning Math

There is a stereotype in math based on race that has been fairly common throughout the years. Although it is actually very positive, as with any stereotype, it is important not to give it too much credibility. However, the idea that Asian students are better at math than average white Americans is one that everyone knows. Some attribute it to strict Asian parenting techniques that have been given credence by articles like the one about the strict Tiger Mom, but most people do not think of what that stereotype might actually mean if you turn the mirror back on yourself. Maybe the stereotype is not that Asians are better at math. Maybe the stereotype should be that white people are terrible at math.

The reasons why are varied. Some might say that it starts with the teachers. Not to jump on all math teachers and blame this all on them, we have issues with the way that we have decided to teach math. Too often, the homework comes in the form of a problem set. Instead of making sure that the students are challenged and forced to fully understand the processes that they are going through to get an answer, they are just trusting that repetition will be enough to cover everything. Repetition will certainly help, but it can also mask the fact that students are not growing their problem-solving and critical thinking skills, just learning how to remember formulas and apply them. Ultimately, math might not be used for everyone, but the reason that we all take it is because of the added benefits of improved critical thinking, which can help in a variety of other aspects of life.

In math classes, it can be one of the easiest environments to cheat, which is not just ethically wrong, but only serves to cheat yourself out of the necessary skills to move forward. One of the biggest differences between math and English is that English classes can have highly subjective answers to questions. Your interpretation can be right as long as it is properly explained and argued, whereas that is not the case in math. In math, the answers are concrete, which can be much more satisfying than English class. This is one of the only areas where you can know right away whether you got the answer right because you know your process is sound and a reasonable result comes out. Oftentimes, especially when you are younger, the teacher will drill home the importance of showing your work. For students, this is frustrating because you know that you are graded on your answer, but for teachers, seeing the process shows them whether you are really understanding and if you are ready to move on or not.

The results coming from our math students these days is so poor that we need to take a hard look at all of the steps in the process, not just on their work, but on our own. We need to focus on teaching reforms to make sure that our students are getting enough help.