Math fail


Until  my early 20s, I never knew that one could become good at math. In high school, I ended up failing 10th-grade math.

That’s Marc Bellemare discussing his struggles with learning mathematics in high school and undergrad. For those of you don’t know, Marc is now an economics professor and is comfortable enough with math to write theory-heavy journal articles. His story about grappling with the subject and eventually learning to master it is well worth a read, especially for those who believe they are inherently bad a math.

I didn’t struggle with mathematics for quite as long as Marc did, but was nearly dissuaded at a much earlier age by the tyranny of early math education: arithmetic.

I’ve never been particularly good at adding, subtracting, multiplying or dividing. How much should we leave for a tip? I’ll let my calculator decide. It’s no surprise then that I found math in elementary school so daunting: we were required to do randomised times tables,where we had to answer as many addition/multiplication questions as possible before an alarm clock went off. I found this immensely stressful and found it very difficult to remember what 7 x 13 was when I knew that any minute now a clock was going to go BZZZZZZZ (I sense there has been a generational improvement though: my father noted that his math classes at a Roman Catholic seminary involved the lecturer smacking students in the back of the head until they got the question right).

When I go back and look through my elementary report cards, I can see how poorly I did: Cs and Ds in basic math, with worried remarks by teachers. Clearly math wasn’t my thing.

Then I was introduced to algebra. You see, arithmetic was usually taught as an exercise lesson: you don’t think about what 7 x 13 means, you remember it. But once math becomes more abstract, it becomes more conceptual and substantially less about memory. I loved algebra. In fact, I loved algebra, trig, and calculus so much that I went on to major in math in university, where I eventually semi-defected to the economics department.

Readers of this blog will probably be past the point where they make significant choices about their math education, but something to keep in mind when you have kids: it’s incredibly easy to be discouraged by math, especially in the early days when it is more about memorization. Others struggle with the more abstract stuff, but as Marc points out, this is a better reason to double down, rather than abandon it for good.*


*Obviously this should only be done to a point – everyone has comparative advantages.