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How To Make a Mathophobe

By Dr. Eugene Maier

You're not likely to find it in the dictionary. It's a coined word, patterned after such words as Francophobe or Anglophobe, formed by the attachment to a descriptor of the combining form -phobe, meaning one that is averse to whatever has been named. Thus one gets mathophobe—someone who has a repugnance for or distaste of mathematics.

As anyone knows who has ever heard math discussed at a social gathering, there are lots of mathophobes. That perhaps is regrettable but, if one thinks about it, not surprising, because they are quite easy to make. Here's one recipe that works: Take a bright student. Force them to take math every year. Bore them with a long list of contrived rules. Remove all sensory experience. Stifle any creative urge.

The recipe worked in David's case. David is a high-school student whose score in his first attempt at the SAT was 1600, the highest possible. His achievement was reported in the local paper along with a thumbnail sketch. David, we learn from the article, will be a high-school senior this year, runs cross-country, and intends to go to college and major either in philosophy, literature, or psychology. We also learn that although David "has an aptitude for math, he detests it."

I have known other students who, when forced to do so, successfully slogged their way through a math class while resenting every minute of it. Several pre-med calculus students come to mind. Nonetheless, I was struck by the seeming incongruity of someone acing the math portion of the SAT while detesting math. I phoned David to find out what led to his strong feelings about math.

David and I chatted a while, and also exchanged e-mails. I think my recipe captures the essence of what soured David on math. He was required to take a math class, and he was running out of classes to take. So he took calculus. He found it boring and he resented all the time it required—time he would have preferred to spend on other school matters. Also he didn't find much in the course that seemed applicable to him.

I don't think anyone intended to turn David into a mathophobe. But it's readily done in today's educational climate. Excessive requirements and high-stake tests, coupled with an emphasis on training for a future that seems remote, create an atmosphere in which the recipe is easily followed.

Requiring students to take mathematics when they detest it is pointless. Human memory being what it is, what will be remembered will be the strong negative emotions and very little, if any, mathematics. Teaching our students all the mathematics they might ever need or want to know is impossible—nobody knows what that is (I suspect some of it hasn't been invented yet). Our students would be better served if we worked at maintaining their interest and developing their understanding rather than covering a vast array of topics. If our students are confident of their learning and not put off by mathematics, then if the need ever arises for them to learn more math, they can do so. David feels no need to know more math now, but if ever in his lifetime he does, his major hurdle in learning it will be his jaundiced view of the subject.

Much of the aversion to math created in our classrooms could be avoided. But first, the focus must change from covering material to connecting with students; from ploughing through textbooks to strengthening students' understandings; from pushing formulas to providing context; from grading tests to discussing ideas.

But in the end, what difference does it make? As long as we turn out students who ace the SAT's and pass all those tests, who cares whether we produce one or a million mathophobes?