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Math in the Kingdom

Is negative attitude just a reaction to failure?


I came across an interesting article on Math in the news. The writer mentioned three examples of comments in the media that contained the same negative connotation so prevalent in the attitude of ' former math students'. The author came to the conclusion that we develop more modest goals for students of math and make the learning experience positive so the long term attitudes to math will be rid of ' hatred and hostility towards the force-fed mathematics program.'

This situation confused me; I needed to find something to compare the experience so that I could better understand. Watching television, it struck me that Tiger Woods and his current 'struggles' with his golf game provided an excellent comparative.

Golf is a very hard game; mastering it is not within the human experience. Mathematics is much the same; infinite time would not guarantee that the finest student would ever understand all that could be known about it.

With this in mind, let's compare the current methodologies used to teach these two activities.

Math learning is essentially a progression of skills to be learned and then built on at the next level. Successful initial learning should increase the likelihood of long term success. This sounds very self evident and most would agree; the current experience seems to be that we are providing sound initial math education so why are we experiencing the feedback as mentioned in the first paragraph?

Golf instruction is essentially the same; skill-based learning broken down into various 'strands' of knowledge. Acquire the skills and master the game. Again this sounds practical and again the results are very much the same. Despite all this, the results show that the average player is not any better then they were 80 years ago when the instruction was almost non existent.

The comparison is interesting; the contrast is fascinating. While we are focused on a process of testing the learning of one area in math at a time, the 'test' of golf involves the act of playing which means that all areas will be part of the challenge. This complete assessment has some interesting outcomes. Listen to many golfers and they will tell you that they were successful in one area and not so in another, i.e., ' I drove the ball well today but I could not buy a putt'. Always, the person begins with the positive and then accepts the area needing more attention.

Although there is room for argument that golf is essentially physical while Mathematics is mental, the discussion should focus on the results of our process of learning to master a very difficult task. The most fascinating result is the way that people react to their experience. Too many adults have had a bad experience learning math and focus their attitude based on the negative experience. Golf, on the other hand, seems to have developed a holistic approach that allows a person to believe that despite his current failures, the opportunity for success will be just around the corner. Many people create their own successes by changing their goal or 'par' to create an atmosphere where they can be successful.

To coin a phrase, Mathematics needs to become a ‘ journey’ that includes successes and failures and an opportunity to learn and relearn. Isolating, teaching and assessing math skill by topic may be contributing to adult attitude as this provides limited opportunity for the use of many different skills and problem solving strategies. High school math courses that focussed on interesting and challenging problem- solving opportunities and encompassed all the areas of mathematics would be an excellent opportunity to change the adult attitude to mathematics.

Another interesting game with links to math is Chess, see the full article.

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