Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Whose fault is it that you aren't good at math?

Yesterday, Seth Godin posted Good at math on his blog. There was a lot that I agree with in this short piece. For example, the second paragraph begins with:
I'll grant you that it might take a gift to be great at math, but if you're not good at math, it's not because of your genes.
Unfortunately, this is followed up with:
It's because you haven't had a math teacher who cared enough to teach you math. They've probably been teaching you to memorize formulas and to be good at math tests instead.
I am not surprised that Godin employs the "blame the teacher" canard. Our nation loves finding easy explanations to complex problems and, therefore, falls back on the "bad teacher" narrative on a regular basis whenever it comes to problems in education. However, this explanation of why you aren't good at math misses an important point. A point Richard Skemp makes in Relational Understanding and Instrumental Understanding.
I used to think that maths teachers were all teaching the same subject, some doing it better than others. 
I now believe that there are two effectively different subjects being taught under the same name, ‘mathematics’.
Skemp's realization can help us to make an important distinction. It isn't that your teachers didn't care. In fact, probably the problem was that your teachers, like the rest of our society, cared too much - cared too much about you being good at math tests. And this is the crux of the problem (and another place where Godin and I can find some agreement). In the third paragraph, he writes:
Being good at standardized math tests is useless. These tests measure nothing of real value, and they amplify a broken system.
So here is what I wish Godin had written in those two paragraphs (my edits in blue):
I'll grant you that it might take a gift to be great at math, but if you're not good at math, it's no because of your genes. It's because of your experiences. You did not encounter in math class the experiences you needed to be good at math. What you received, because of our broken system's obsession with test scores, were experiences meant to prepare you to be successful in schoolmath - memorization of facts and formulas that can be easily assessed using standardized-tests.
What can we do about this disconnect between math and schoolmath? We can begin by recognizing that being good at standardized math tests is useless. These tests measure nothing of real value, and they amplify a broken system.
What do you wish Godin had written? Because until we can understand the problem, to be able to put it into our own words, it will be nearly impossible to solve it. 


  1. I would have been happier if he had said that the teachers who teach people to memorize formulas and pass tests are usually compelled to do so by outside forces. It's hard for teachers to innovate in the environments they have to work with.

  2. I've always wished Seth Godin were simply less glib. Your explanation is much more accurate (as if he has any idea how much a teacher cares), tho' I'd be compelled to say "may be" not "is."

  3. I read Seth's post before reading the rest of yours. My first instinct was, "Wow he's on point! I should share this with my students." Then I thought, "This sounds like it would be really insulting if one of them showed this to their middle school teachers."

    Then I thought I should share it with my department. But again, then I thought about who I could possibly insult with that.

    I think you and Robert put it much better and say it much more kindly, that all teachers have to deal with the system they're working in, and that whatever they do is because they do care.

    Today we had a department meeting about how to support the students who would have been in the lower level classes since we stopped offering them this year. What came up was, "What do we mean when we want our students to be successful?" and one person's answer was "They should at least be able to get a C." Irked me quite a bit, but I can see where it's coming from. In co-taught classes, some people want to pull out the lower kids and just drill and kill with them so that they can do the skills on the tests.

    I was happy to read this because I'm having a hell of time getting my Algebra 1 freshmen adjusted from memorizing formulas and passing tests to actually thinking and doing math. I guess I want to share this idea with my students (and colleagues, too) in a way that won't offend people. And I also still need to get them to pass tests because I do work within a system as well, and don't need parents and counselors and the students getting overly angry with me. It's difficult to change a culture, and reading this helped me reflect more and helps me realize others are having the same struggle.

  4. I don't think Godin is bashing teachers. I'm sure he realizes that most teachers are hard working, caring people. The problem is that many of them (teachers) are not terrific at motivating students to learn well either level 1 (school math) or level 2 (real math). Saying that is not teacher bashing, it is just saying what is true. Progress won't be made unless teachers (like Zack P is doing) are willing to work towards getting better at their craft.

  5. Saying stuff like, "Being good at standardized math tests is useless. These tests measure nothing of real value, and they amplify a broken system." comes off as Utopian to almost every kid in school. The , "broken" system that bases success on testing is their life. Their ability to participate in extra-curricular events, get along with their parents, get into the college and program they seek are all cradled in the hands of this "broken" system. If they somehow learn to love math, they try to straddle the two worlds, testing and real learning, as best they can. The rare exceptions are anecdotes, the rest form the statistics. Zach P points out the balance beam that you walk on when teaching. Teachers who are trying to step outside the mold and teach thinking will be OK as long as the parents understand what they are doing, AND students do well on the tests. Math teachers are sadly, no better or no worse (opinion) than history, art, or music teachers. But none of the others will suffer anything like the scrutiny of the math teacher regarding their teaching methods.

  6. Whose fault is it that you aren't good at math? Another equally glib and equally true answer: parents.

    Other interesting questions: whose fault is it that you think you aren't good at math? Whose fault is it that you aren't getting better at math?