Education

The math way of life

When taught effectively, students come to love the subject and subsequently benefit from its long-term positive consequences

Being a mathematics and physics teacher, I have had the privilege of interacting with thousands of parents and students from diverse backgrounds. Also, being a part of one of the world’s largest education companies, I have also had the opportunity of interacting with some of the finest educators from around the world.

In all of these conversations, a question I am asked often is why, despite a rich ancient mathematics culture, India does not produce great mathematicians. Is it a reflection of the quality of math education in the country? Does it demonstrate a common aptitude amongst Indians? Is there a ‘gene’ that determines whether you excel in this subject or not? Well, I have a slightly different way of looking at it and I believe there is no better time to share this than with the National Mathematics Day around the corner on December 22.

Being good at math versus being a good mathematician are two very different things. A mathematician is someone who is a specialist or an expert and is most likely pursuing research in this field. Being ‘good at math’, however, can be evaluated in various ways.

Everyday use

What is math at the core? It is merely a way of thinking. It is a universal language and the omnipresence of numbers makes it an integral part of our very existence. Be it calculating the distance to work or assessing the amount of weekly groceries, math is a part of our everyday decisions. According to me, your way of approaching problems analytically and logically determines how good you are in the subject.

If your way of thinking is logical, you can apply it to problems you face across computer science, coding, business, investing etc; research mathematics is not the only way to demonstrate our mathematical strength. Formal education and degrees aside, I strongly believe that conceptual clarity in math along with strong fundamentals can help students excel in any field.

Tackling the fear

While the importance of math is uncontested, I see a common aversion to this subject across students of all age groups, especially young adults. Traditionally, maths has been taught in an abstract manner which makes it one of the ‘most feared’ subjects. Understanding and exploring math concepts is still driven by the fear of exams instead of the love for the subject. In fact, the fear of maths continues to live through most of our adult lives too.

In my teaching experience, though, I have not come across children who are unable to do math if you teach them the right way. The reality is that all kids are smart and it is our responsibility to identify what they are smart at and leverage that to teach them. For example, some students struggle to remember formulae. If you try to make them memorise it, they will never be able to perform well. However, the same child could be great at visualising things. Taking them through the same concepts visually — through a video or by taking them outdoors, and you will see they are able to grasp the idea easily. For all parents and teachers, the focus should be on explaining concepts using multiple formats because the reality is that different kids learn in different ways, and we should stop trying to fit them in the same mould.

It is also critical that we change our attitude towards mistakes. Take an example of your favourite video game — you don’t always finish it in one go. Yet, you don’t stop trying. That is because, instead of telling you that you are ‘bad’ at it, you are instantly given the option to try again. That is how math learning should be. Criticising mistakes and errors creates life-long inhibitions that prevent the child from trying again. Mistakes are not failures, and if treated right, there is no reason the child will not give his best in grasping the subject once again.

The biggest disservice we can do to our children and students is letting them believe they are ‘weak’ or ‘incapable’. Children, from their formative years, should be taught to understand and experience the ‘intellectual adventure’ that mathematics can offer them. Problem-solving is the heart of mathematics and learning this as a life-skill has long-term positive consequences which the students will cherish for life.

The writer is teacher and Chief Strategy Officer, BYJU’S — The Learning App.

National Mathematics Day is observed on December 22.

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Printable version | Feb 18, 2020 10:12:45 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/education/the-math-way-of-life/article25751666.ece

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