You are not bad at math, you just don’t read the language

How many of us have had this happen:


Student: reads a problem. Attempts to solve. Completely bombs. Ignores order of operations. “I suck at math!”

Teacher: sits down with student. Breaks apart the problem, giving it verbally to the student.

Student: does perfect, exclaiming “That was so easy! Why didn’t I get it the first time? I must suck at math!”

Teacher: *facepalm*


On facebook there are a variety of little polls that go around.  Right now there is one that looks like this:

Now how many people who got the ‘1’ are thinking “my, goodness, look at all the idiots who don’t know simple mathematics!”

And how many who got the ‘9’ are thinking the same thing about the people that picked ‘1’?

Me: *facepalm*

I feel like that’s the same as making fun of a lady for not knowing the sign said ‘men’s room’ when it’s in Japanese and the lady in question only reads English. If some helpful soul had read it out loud and translated, of course that lady would have chosen the other door. It’s not willful ignorance, here, it’s that smart, hardworking individuals never figured out how to read math. Or if they did, it was short term omg-there-is-a-test-tomorrow learning which does not stick. Especially if sleep deprivation is invovled. But that’s another post another time.

I suspect I could grab just about any individual off the street and walk them through it and they would get the right answer. Possibly with some finger counting.

So does math illiteracy = not able to do math? No. Not any more than reading illiteracy = not being able to discuss complex ideas. It’s useful to write math down because when large problems are being worked through, it’s a rare individual that can keep all the number straight. The visual form of mathematics (equations and graphs and tables) give a clear why to communicate mathematical ideas just as words do for language.

Now, teaching a language that pulls from multiple alphabets, where position is important, and multiple symbols are in play? Including three different ways to indicate multiplication? That’s a part of my job. Not the biggest part by far, but one that can cause an avalanche of problems.

Kids can do math just fine. But how much of the lack of mathematical self efficacy is from young kids deciding they suck at math because of a click on Facebook?

And which did you pick? the 1 or the 9?

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