You know what makes Math beautiful? It’s the absoluteness of it. One thing must equal something else. Or it must not. The concept of equals has a symmetry that embodies perfection.
The preciseness of equals is captivating. There is an attractiveness towards this absoluteness that innately draws us.
We have affinities for certain foods. We either like the food. Or we don’t like the food. This absoluteness builds an affinity for that food which identifies the food as “a food that is for us.” There is no in-between.
For me it is PB&J sandwiches. I liked them as a kid, and I knew I liked them. Now, when I think of them, that affinity has grown through my personal history. This affinity has nothing to do with the quality of the sandwich, as my wife is quick to point out.
Likewise with Math. There is an affinity we develop for Math because we find its absoluteness attractive. As life goes on, and we are able to reach that absolute equality time and time again, that affinity grows.
The opposite is also true. When we cannot reach that absoluteness of equals, when the equation is unbalanced, we don’t like it. This too grows with continued experiences with unbalanced equations.
For this reason, some people “like” math and some don’t. This is fine. I’m not trying to convince you that everyone can like math or that everyone needs to.
OK to Dislike Math, Not OK to Dislike Trying Math
However, the problem in math education is that this repulsion towards an unbalanced math result becomes associated with our ability to develop a skill, the skill to balance the equation.
This is the reason many kids decide they don’t like “studying” math. However, this is an unfortunate thought process because it is flawed logic. The success or failure of a balanced equation should be independent from a student’s success or failure in developing the skill in balancing that equation.
This flaw in thinking doesn’t seem to permeate across all subjects. It does to an extent; however, the absoluteness of math makes it much more polarized than in other subjects.
Consider essay writing. In writing two essays, the first might be good, while the second might be great. If the second is better, it doesn’t have to mean that I didn’t enjoy writing the first. The subject has a gray area in the evaluation of the result. As in math, the student will make that invalid association between their ability to deliver a great essay result and their ability to develop their skill in essay writing. However, the gray area in evaluation also translates to the skill development, and so their ability to develop the skill is not evaluated as an absolute failure. Thus, the subject of essay writing seems more palatable. It is the false association between the result and the skill development that creates this illogical affinity.
The absoluteness of math allows for no such gray area in evaluating the balanced equation. It is either right or wrong, balanced or unbalanced. Similar to the case of essay writing, the false association between the ability to balance the equation and the ability develop the skill makes even the skill development of math either absolutely enjoyable or absolutely unenjoyable.
No one is suggesting that everyone must love math. It’s ok that we may not be attracted to math. There are many who are not attracted to that balanced equation and many more who have lost that attraction through experiencing, time and time again, the failure of the math result, the unbalanced equation.
However, the affinity towards the math result must be understood independently from the affinity towards personal skill development.
The Result is not the Effort
My inability in writing a bestselling book is not going to discourage me from attempting to write a book. The result remains separate from the effort in skill development. My feeling of inadequacy with my writing result does not impact my feeling towards my skill of growing my writing ability.
I know that my current book may not be a bestseller, but my skill will successfully grow because of it nonetheless. In Math, students are unable to make this disassociation. A feeling of inadequacy in a math exam automatically correlates to a feeling of inadequacy in the skill of learning math.
As an author, I can write a mediocre book and still enjoy writing. For a Math student, if they are only able to write a mediocre equation (the unbalanced equation), the student is unable to enjoy the math effort. This makes no sense…until we see how education has blurred the difference between the result and the effort in skill development.
Education Evaluates Effort based on Result
Educational systems imply that we should all be balancing the math equations at the same pace and so our skill in math is expected to grow at the same pace. In Language Arts subjects, our skill in the subject is allowed to grow at each student’s pace, at least more so than in math. This evaluation of your ability to develop this skill in math is placed at an early age.
Failure to kids is not necessarily only an F grade. The meaning of failure to kids is their inability to meet expectations. A kid might get a B grade, but if that doesn’t meet the expectation of the parents, that is failure for the kid.
While the absoluteness of math will tell you, “Yes, you failed”, the lack of meeting the skill development expectation is where the failure is felt. To the point of fear.
However, it doesn’t have to be this way. The ability to balance difficult equations does not equate to the ability to develop a skill. They are two different abilities.
While math is an absolute measure implies success or failure, you either balance the equation or you don’t, skill development is gray and will remain gray for the rest of your life, no matter how far your skill advances. A math result can only be either 100% or 0%. Skill can never be 100%, nor can it be fully 0%.
Disassociating the Result from the Effort
Consider a video game. A video game not only simulates that all or nothing absoluteness of math. It embraces it. Either you beat the game or you fail epically. There is usually only one, very difficult route to beating the game, so failure is the more likely result, usually as a gruesome or mocking death.
Yet the inability to succeed in a game does not equate to the skill development in that game. Kids enjoy every little step forward in the game even though every single one of those steps ends in failure.
Imagine going through an education in math without ever being able to balance the equation. In every exam, you get every answer wrong. You might be getting closer to the answer every time, but it is wrong nonetheless. How does a student survive this continual failure? Yet, that is exactly what happens in video games. How many kids actually pass a video game? Very few actually are able to balance that equation in the game. However, their skill grows, and it’s that joy in developing the skill which makes them continue.
Mathletics Separates the Result from Skill Development
This is what makes Mathletics different. As mentioned, the fear stems from this correlation between skill development and the successful result. Kids don’t take the math test just to get 100%. While 100% is the goal and is the only successful result, they take joy and derive energy from the slow growth towards that 100%. They look forward to that next chance to get closer to that absolute pass.
When we say we want kids to have “No Fear of Math”, the real fear we are addressing is the fear of developing that skill in math, not math itself.