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I Hate Math - Creating More Interest In Mathematics Starts With How It Is Presented And Applied

Increasingly, experts believe that to get more students interested in math – particularly more students who have new and varying ways of approaching it – we need to think differently about how we teach it.

Everyone knows people at both an early age or late in life who will say that they “hate math” – there are few subjects we feel more strongly about. But also, there are many adults who will say that they grew to dislike math early, never developed and interest or skill at it then later in life found they enjoyed it, especially when they were applying it practically.

And that is part of a three-pronged approach to teaching math that seems to be gaining popularity

“The most important thing about motivating individuals to be interested in math and take math courses is to make sure they understand why it’s important, says Jacquelynne Eccles, a leading researcher in student motivation at University of California at Irvine. She says that the second step is having them explore math in different ways. Then, she says, interest in math often is sustained or grows as students pursue interests in math careers.

So, those three efforts – showing how important math can be and where it applies, teaching it creatively and with various techniques at every level and then having students apply it in practical ways and understand how it can be used in jobs – are often cited by experts as three of the ways to expand interest, especially among girls,  In the past they have moved away from math because of ideas that it is a field better suited for males, for some reason, and because they chose careers where it might not be critical – so early on they drift away from those courses, Eccles says.

“Research shows the best predictor of a student continuing to take math in high school and going on to take math in college and major in a STEM field are a student’s seventh grade career aspirations,” she says. “Unfortunately many students, particularly females, don’t know what kinds of jobs use math, and might be consistent with their life values. Girls, for instance,  are less likely to want to become an engineer. Some people say it’s because they don’t like math, but our data suggests it’s because they don’t know what engineers do.”

The American Federation of Teachers last year published a report based on a book about “Math Mindsets” that similarly suggests our approaches to math instruction have turned students off. It also recommends new teaching approaches and getting students to think more broadly about math.

“For many students, their first experience of math is one of confusion, as the methods do not make sense to them, writes Jo Boaler, author of the book. “The inquisitiveness of our children’s early years fades away and is replaced by a strong belief that math is all about following instructions and rules.”

She goes on to say young students should be encouraged to play with numbers and shapes, thinking about what patterns and ideas they can see”.

She also notes that research shows a “growth mindset” about math is important – a belief that the more a student learns, the more mathematical pathways they develop. They need to see it as a conceptual subject that they can “think about and make sense of”.

 “When students see math as a series of short questions, they cannot see the role for their own inner growth and learning They think that math is a fixed set of methods that either they get or they don’t,” she says. “But when students see math as a broad landscape of unexplored puzzles in which they can wander around, asking questions and thinking about relationships, they understand that their role is thinking, sense making, and growing. When students see mathematics as a set of ideas and relationships, and their role as ont of thinking about the ideas and making sense of them, they have a mathematical mindset.

Eccles is concerned about over-reliance on a “mindset” way of thinking about math instruction because, she says, it can put too much of the responsibility on students and not enough on teachers, but generally she agrees that math instruction should be changed in these way. She notes, however, that her research has shown a critical part of developing lasting interest in math is exposing students to those fields of study.

“In the high school years we know that students are making course choices and developing subject matter interests that are related to their occupational goals,” she says. “So those choices about pursuing a career, which often are initiated in middle school or earlier, have an effect on whether they pursue math.”

Written by Jim Paterson, Education World Contributing Writer

Jim Paterson is a writer, contributing to a variety of national publications, most recently specializing in education. During a break from writing for a period, he was the head of a school counseling department. (

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