Problems with math – The way math is taught makes learning boring and difficult


The wrong math teacher at the wrong time in a student”s education can ruin his or her life.

They will make them think that math is about finding the right answer. They will make them think that math is fast – and that they”re taking too long. They will make them think that they might just not be a math person.

Danny Bugingo

Then that student will never become a programmer or a geographer or an astronaut. Why would they? Math is boring and difficult, and if those jobs need math, they”re probably boring and difficult, too.

Back in middle school, I struggled with algebra. My teacher explained to me that algebra was important because I would use it in pre-calculus, and that was important because I would use it in calculus and that was important because I would use it in a job to make a lot of money.

I didn”t care. Math was boring and difficult, and I knew it wasn”t for me – until this year, when I ran into a new type of math.

This math course was not about solving, but about arguing and justifying. It was a math that needed creativity as much as reason, a math that had more questions than answers. It was truth, discovery, invention, a desperate search for meaning, a relentless pursuit of order in a chaotic world – it was beautiful.

Sort of. At the end of the day it was a lower-division, undergraduate math class with a crowded lecture room and six months of material crammed into 15 weeks. The textbook was expensive. It got difficult. But it didn”t get boring.

From counting to calculus, all the math I had ever studied was continuous – it happened on a number line stretching from negative infinity to positive infinity. You added, multiplied, factored, and solved, and solved, and solved.

But this new math was discrete, not continuous. We stepped away from the number line and learned about sets, which are like boxes with a bunch of stuff inside. “f(x) = 8x + 5″ described the relationship between a box named “x,” and a box named “f(x)”. Any time you put a number into the “x” box, a number five more than eight times the first number would appear in the “f(x)” box.

But these boxes didn”t need to relate to one another. They didn”t even need to have numbers inside. Words could go into boxes, shapes into boxes, other boxes into boxes. The textbook used these boxes to describe the languages spoken in India, the overlap between people with pierced noses and pierced ears, and the challenges of finding a fulfilling career.

Boxes – sets – were vehicles for ideas, not calculations.

None of this had any place in my algebra teacher”s path to a stable income because it was the forest that the path cut through, the axioms and assumptions supporting the rest of math. For once, math felt important. I was thinking and creating, not computing.

The hardest part of math isn”t doing math – it”s continuing to care about a subject that has had the life beaten out of it.

“Rigor, rigor, rigor,” the schools yell.

“This isn”t the way that I learned it,” the parents shout.

The cooks in the kitchen serve up a series of equations to memorize and hoops to jump through – not an education.

From bottom to top, math education ruins students” lives – unless a student is lucky enough to run into the rare, excellent teacher.

The right math teacher at the right time in a student”s education will make a broken system work. They will show that math is about patterns, not answers.

They will show that real math is slow and careful. They will show that even if their student doesn”t become a programmer or a geographer or an astronaut, their ability to think mathematically – to find order in chaos – will be an indispensable tool.

Danny Bugingo can be reached at

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