The Great Math Divide

When a math grade goes south, often parents assume an academic tutor is the answer, as the problem must be a lack of understanding.   Students often draw the same conclusion, under the reasoning that the “teacher can’t teach.”   The latter sentiment of the student is what needs further examination; for while the student may simply be looking to assign blame and the parent may be skeptical of the student’s position, there may be more to the opinion regarding the teacher’s teaching ability.

While, the mathematical understanding of the teacher may be unquestionable, the transmission of their expertise from inside the teacher’s head to the students’ in the audience may or may not occur smoothly. The classroom conditions (i.e. 35 students to one teacher), fast-paced, advanced curriculum, complex math concepts like Calculus, may all further complicate the acquisition of knowledge by the student.  Yet, a curious “cultural” divide between so-called math people and non-math people may also be a play. Years ago, I talked with a former colleague and math teacher, about why math teachers seemingly struggle to make clear concepts to students.  She contrasted the communication style of typical math teachers with natural storytellers, like many “English people”, which can draw in others socially.  If numbers and complex mathematical functions are your natural language, usually other “math nerds” as she called them, will become good friends; since you speak the same numerical, logic-based language.  The social system becomes closed in this “secret” numerical-formula-explained world and when you meet people outside that structure, relating can be challenging.  Bam! The light bulb turned on.  What we’re talking about now isn’t an intellectual divide, but a communications gap.  So, tutoring and remediation will not necessarily solve the issue.

What parents and students face is the issue of how maturing teenagers can learn to work with adults.  The problem solving process then is focused on how to set aside possible personality differences, and preconceived notions about a stellar or less than stellar math ability.  Subject matter tutors may help with the latter and build the student’s “math confidence”, but learning how to adapt to a new communications style without seemingly being compromising can take longer, adding to the complexity in learning. While there is no simple solution, the process of learning how to learn can serve the teen far longer than how to solve for f(x).

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About Jill Yoshikawa, Ed M, Partner of Creative Marbles Consultancy

Jill Yoshikawa, EdM, Harvard ’99, a seasoned, 25 year educator and consultant, is meticulous in helping clients navigate all aspects of the educational experience, no matter the level of complexity. She combines educational theory with experience to advise families, schools and educators. A UCSD and Harvard graduate, as well as a former high school teacher, Jill works tirelessly to help her clients succeed.
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