Like many teachers, I occasionally get notes or drop-ins from former students. And I don’t care how old they are; they will always be my kids. With the advent of the Facebooks, I have several that I occasionally hear from after they’ve graduated. I especially like the ones that apologize to me for not taking more math in college. Kinda adorable.

Last night I got a missive from one of my darlings worried about her math final. If she doesn’t pass it, she’ll fail the class. This is her first semester in college. The note was short, and she ended it with

Why am I so bad at the maths?! D:

I wrote back the following:

For me, maths was more about accepting a different way of thinking than anything else and that can be the hard part. We’re not brought up in a logic-based society. So much of high school math is focused on procedural thinking–if A, then do B & C, and ta-da! And that’s not really math. That’s more like advanced baking. Useful, to be sure, but not a way of thinking. Since I don’t use those types of problems as my main push in classes it’s also why the typical A-maths kids don’t like me for a few months–they’ve never really had to think for understanding before.

And that right there is the key. Maths makes sense. It’s the Queen of Science for a reason. If you think what you are doing in math does not make sense or is magical, than we need to figure out a different way for you to think about it. Luckily, there are a lot of ways to think about maths that are successful. Unluckily, finding the way that works for your brain can be grueling.

I got through high school using procedural skill (the If A, then do B stuff). I hit a brick wall in my first maths class in college because it didn’t work with that professor. I had to show him how I was making sense of the maths and since I wasn’t really making any sense I didn’t have anything to give him. There were a lot of nights spent in the math study room and I didn’t really get the thinking needed to understand, but I was moving that way. Slowly.

Sophomore year was when it was finally clicking that I needed to build my own understanding so I could stop playing the memorization game (it wasn’t possible to pass some of my classes via pure-memorization as no ones memory is that good. And I was taking Latin at the time so my memory banks were full up with vocabulary).

So yeah, maths is hard if you’re taking the memorize ever permutation of a problem and how to solve it route. Figuring out the patterns behind the maths is a challenge, but it pays a lot of dividends. If you ever want to chat about your stuff, just let me know. I have skype and I use google hangouts quite a bit for my work. Just remember: I am 3 hours ahead of you 🙂

What I did in class wasn’t enough to get her to where she needed to be to be successful in college maths. I still focus too much on the procedural at times, but every year I moved more and more away from that as I built up skills toward a teaching style I never saw in high school maths. I’m curious to see how much my classroom skills will atrophe while I am out of one or if the level of ed-research, blogs, and consulting work I do will help me hold steady. One can only hope.

I miss my kids.