Monday, 4 October 2010

High Road, Low Road

I am terribly math challenged.

Please believe me when I say that I am not the least bit proud of this. I have met girls and women who seem to enjoy telling people about their math inability, but I am not one of them. My mother and sisters were straight A math students. Sadly, I take after my father, who was not.

I would like to think that I am secretly capable of doing math. I am not stupid, and I had perfectly decent teachers, including my own mother, who did everything in their power to help me. Friends who were struggling with simultaneous equations or recurrence relations would come over to my house to be taught by my mother. We would sit on either side of her and she would take us both through whatever we were studying step by patient step. "I get it now!" they would say when she had finished, eyes brimming with the light of reason. My mother would then turn to me, at which point I either faked it and pretended to understand or confessed that I hadn't been paying attention.

I squeaked through high school with Cs in algebra and geometry. Much to my mother's distress, but possibly also to her relief, I never went any higher.

My daughters, I am amazed and delighted to say, do not take after me in math cluelessness. They may not be the best students in their math classes, but they are capable and interested. I listen to them telling me about quadratic equations or trigonometry and I marvel that I could have produced children who understand and like math.

The other day, my daughter came home from school with a funny story. A particularly dimwitted girl in her math class was butchering the differentiation of a form of X. (Please don't ask me what that means -- my eyes glazed over just writing it.) The class had been set the task of finding the differentiated form of a function and to do so there were several different stages they had to go through. While everyone was working on the problem at their own rate, they could hear the teacher berating this girl, telling her that her methods were total nonsense.

But the girl insisted that she was right.

Finally, the teacher threw up his hands. "Okay," he spluttered, "I'm going to give you a problem which you are going to solve with your method." His lip curled when he said the word method, but the girl flounced up to the board in her short skirts and waited while he wrote out a particularly nasty problem. She took the marker. In a most inexpert fashion, she shifted numbers around with no apparent logic while the teacher smiled with barely concealed scorn. The teacher, who had not yet worked out the answer himself, then tackled the problem in his own methodical way, step by step. And when he got the answer, his mouth fell open in amazement as the entire class exploded into laughter.

They had both come up with the exact same answer. The teacher claimed that in twenty years of teaching, he had never seen anything like it.

Interestingly enough, I once experienced something very similar. After my disgraceful performance in algebra and geometry, I graduated from high school and went to Florida, flying in a plane for the first time in my life, to visit my cousins in Pensacola. Shortly after we took off, a quiz was distributed inviting passengers to calculate the precise time we would be flying over the Alamo. We were given certain information: the departure time, the plane's average speed, the head winds, the tail winds, and total distance covered.

I took one look at this and felt a little weak in the knees -- I knew math when I saw it! -- but I had stupidly forgotten to bring a book and after all, we weren't being tested on it. So I worked out an equation, marked down my answer, and turned it in to the stewardess.

Twenty minutes later there was an announcement made over the intercom. An accountant from New York City and I had tied for first place. We had each won a bottle of champagne.

The stewardess gave me a bright smile as she handed me my champagne voucher. "You must be one of those math whizzes!" she gushed. I gave her a weak smile back and thanked God that she would never know.

To this day, I will never understand how I did that. "Maybe they made a mistake marking it," my younger sister said when she heard the story. "Even a broken clock is right twice a day," my older sister said. But in my heart of hearts, I want to believe that just like my daughter's classmate, I reached the correct destination -- finally -- my own creative way.


Travis Erwin said...

Woohoo. I have been fortunate in life to get math and I must confess it frustrates me to no end that my oldest son struggles mightily.

Because it comes easy to me I struggle to teach him and I feel guilty for that.

Miss Footloose said...

Our brains can do fabulous things! Even when we think we don't know or can't do, our brains may find a secret way.

Math troubled me a lot when I was in school, but I am now inspired to try again. You never know, something in my brain my have come unlocked ;) due to air travel, malaria medicine, or hives due to eating too many African bananas.

Carole said...

Great story. I love it. I also don't get math. My brother-in-law is and engineer and is always telling math jokes that just crack him up.

"Complex math is all fun and games until someone loses an i."

He thought it was very funny, I on the other hand am still scratching my head.

Kim Ayres said...

When I was in school, Maths was the easiest of all subjects - it was just so obvious. English, on the other hand was a nightmare - the answer seemed to be whatever the English teacher thought, depending on his mood, or the cycle of the moon. I left school at 16.

7 years later I returned to education and took some highers, where I got an A in English and ended up dropping Maths at the end of the first term.

I found that when faced with a problem such as - a bath will take 10 minutes to fill with the cold tap on, 7 minutes to fill with the hot tap on, and 20 minutes to empty with the plug out, therefore how long will it take to fill the bath with both taps on and no plug - all I could think was, what kind of idiot would try and fill the bath with no plug in?

My entire brain had rewired itself in the intervening years

e said...

I too struggled with maths and still do. Though obviously bright, verbal and a published writer, I've often wondered if the problem might be brain-related or whether it is the product of extreme anxiety around the subject...

ShackelMom said...

I have been lurking for over a year and love your blog! We have a lot in common! This time I had to pipe up. You sounds just like me, very smart, but terrible at Math. The teacher who tried to teach me Math in grades 6-8 told me one day when I was an adult, "Guess what! There's a name for your Math problem! Dyscalculia!" Indeed, it is to numbers what dyslexia is to words.

I describe it as having a room in my brain for numbers. Inside there are no shelves, hooks, tables, pigeon-holes, file cabinets or organizational tools of any kind. The walls are all white. When I get a number, I open the door and throw it in. When I need a number, I have to sort through the pile on the floor like looking through a pile of mis-matched socks. A few frequesntly used numbers are in a neat pile next to the door and I can find them, but the rest is a first class muddle.

My husband majored in Math, and when he talks Math it is like listening to another language, except I understand each, individual word he uses, just not the sum of them...

But like you, when the pressure is off, I have had moments of genius in which I actually figure things out in my own, indescribable, unreproducable way, and get the right answer. I like to say I am a pretty good guesser.

Vijaya said...

I love this story. You are so uniquely you. Everyone does not have to be a math whiz or a wordsmith. We each have our blessings.

What I love is how creative our minds can be. How a supposed dimwit can come up with a solution in her own unique way. That's genius to me!

Carolie said...

Wonderful story, Mary!

I used to fight with my algebra teacher, who insisted that I was not "showing all my work". I wrote down EVERY STEP -- but it seems I was somehow skipping steps, and it made her angry.

She explained and explained, but I could not figure out how to do it her way. It felt as if she was asking me "Find the sum of 3 plus 2 -- and show your work!" What do you write, other than 3 + 2 = 5? We were obviously coming from two very different perspectives!

Though I really do understand the need for a student to learn "the proper way" to solve certain math problems, I still don't understand why a student should not get at least partial credit for getting the right answer, even if by the "wrong" method!

AnneB said...

Kim, I say any bath that takes 20 minutes to drain needs the drain snaked out, not somebody sitting on the edge of the tub with a stopwatch.

Robert the Skeptic said...

I failed Algebra three times in high school; it never made sense to me, they were using letter rather than numbers. Aren't letters reserved for making words?

My lack of understanding in math curtailed many career ambitions; medicine, architecture, engineering... all things I was keenly interested in. I opted for a degree in biology as, alas, it required the least amount of math. And for some reason I cannot make sense out of reading music either... never have. I am told that both concepts are related.

Mary Witzl said...

Travis -- You help your son with math? My commiserations. Because I'm math-challenged, I lived in fear of my kids inheriting this from me and needing help with their math homework. Thank God my husband is not math challenged and also a teacher, and whenever they don't get something, he's right on it.

Just remember that when your kid can't grasp a math concept, wanting him to get it is like expecting a tone deaf person to stay in harmony.

Miss Footloose -- I took algebra again when I got to university and after struggling mightily with it, managed a B. To this day, I'm prouder of that B than I am of any other grade. The math teacher we had at university enjoyed teaching math so much that he danced on his feet sometimes, from the sheer thrill of explaining something properly. I say give it a go!!

Carole -- I'm going to tell that very joke tonight when my husband gets back from work. If he gets it, I'll have him explain it to me so I can stop scratching my head.

Kim -- That is so interesting! My husband has a theory that bad teachers are responsible for most of the 'blocks' for math or English or whatever. I had dull, competent math teachers and I really cannot blame them. None of them yelled at me or called me an idiot; in fact, I had to beg to be let out of the highers' math class because some of them were convinced that I really 'got' it but was holding out. I suspect that I'd have needed a really dynamic, patient, warm-hearted, ever-vigilant teacher for math -- but I doubt if even a great teacher like that could have helped me get higher than a B.

But you must have had English teachers from hell, Kim. Because there really are very few answers in English, and when there are, they're the sort you engage in spirited classroom conversations over.

I asked myself those questions about math all the time. Once I read the question, my brain started working on the nonsense of why anyone wanted to race a train or mix various kinds of candy instead of weighing them separately, or whatever, and I'd forgotten all about the math involved.

e -- I think it must be a vicous circle. We're challenged, so we panic when people try to teach us. Then the teacher loses patience and possibly says something hurtful, so we get all bent out of shape and insecure -- and the next time anyone tries to penetrate our math block, it's all the harder. It's just so frustrating, isn't it? I sometimes wonder what it would be like to be an athletic person who is infinitely good at math. I like to imagine running for miles and working out complex equations in my head.

Mary Witzl said...

ShackelMom -- Thank you for commenting and putting a name to our disorder -- 'discalculia' sounds a lot better than 'she's really bad at math'.

Right up to high school, the brighter kids in the schools I attended were streamed into higher classes. I was invariably in the top stream for all classes, including math, and it was horrible. My mother had to go down to the school and beg them to take me out of the higher math class. My younger sister was in a higher math class than I was, so my humiliation was complete.

My math room is small and white with very smooth walls. On a little table, are laid out easy functions like working out tips (being a waitress had its uses), doing simple sums, and measuring weights and lengths. In the middle of the room is a horrible, deep pit I now know not to go near. And yet, halfway down that pit is a little ledge with simultaneous equations stuck into it. If I slip and fall down the hole, I can scrabble onto that ledge and I'm quite happy there. Simultaneous equations were almost fun.

Vijaya -- I'm betting that with a background in science, you can do math and words too -- right? I am always filled with wistful longing when I meet people who are both verbal and mathematically acute (my own children included)

If I'd been able to do math, the whole world would have opened to me. Getting a C in math meant that I could not apply for the foreign student exchange program at our high school, which I longed to do. It meant that I could not ever hope to be a veterinarian. Sigh... But you are right: there is a certain joy in being able to do things no one expects you to be able to do. And I managed this once, which is more than some people do.

Carolie -- My husband taught math and at the school he worked at, teachers were told to mark wrong any work that did not show the proper process. And the proper process was what kids were shown how to do at that particular school. This rather rigid approach caused him a lot of headaches.

One thing interesting about math is that you can approach it in different ways and still get the same, correct result. Some ways of working out problems are supposed to be more efficient than others and that is what the teachers are trying to encourage. But I agree with you -- it seems CRAZY to penalize people who get the correct answer by using a different process than the one they were taught. It makes me suspect that some of the people who go into math teaching have very rigid ways of thinking.

AnneB -- Ha!

You have to wonder who writes some of those questions. As a child, I would read one of those designed-as-interesting-story math problems and wonder if the writer really didn't have anything better to do with his time than waste mine.

Robert -- We would have been great pals in high school, I am sure of it. When I say that I got Cs in math, please don't imagine that they were ALL I got. And those Cs were hard won, plus I had the benefit of a mother who could teach math. I hated the letters-as-number thing too, no matter how many times my mother explained that the letter was just standing in for an unknown.

Not being able to get math limited my career choices too. And I can't read music to save my soul.

Anonymous said...

Found this via the Blueboards, what a great story - and oh do I ever identify! My parents and brothers are mathematically-enabled, bro #1 even has a degree in it: and yet there is me with about as much ability to solve an equation as swim the Channel. That said, I also get those occasional intuitive leaps about sums. Always thought maths teachers should be glad I could GET a right answer on occasion, but apparently not ... Actually, out of all my exams at school, I never worked for one harder than my Maths GCSE, just so I could get a passing mark and not have to retake it! (and I managed, oh what a lovely B.)

Bish Denham said...

Hey those moments of brilliance are real, no matter how short lived they are.

My father and sister were the math wizards. In highschool the teacher, a tutor and my dad helped me and all I could muster were Cs. But maybe I have an excuse cause I'm mildly dyslexic. I am so math challenged I have never been able learn the times tables. Numbers just do not stay in my head. When the family phone number (that we'd had for-e-ver) was changed, it took me something like 15 years to finally be able to remember it, and then only because I finally got a touch tone phone and I was able to connect the numbers to the pattern they made on the "dial."

Falak said...

More than hate math I'd say I'm scared of it. Math exams are the stuff my nightmares are made of even today.I cried and wailed my way through sleepless nights and passed with a decent 70%. After my boards I did everything short of burning all those books. My brother on the other hand is a whiz when it comes to Math. Last week he was raking his brain over a quadratic equation and berating me simultaneously about not helping. Irritated, I glanced at it and asked him to split the middle term just to shut him up. 5 minutes later HE thanked ME for helping him solve the sum. I'll never forget that day!

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Charles Gramlich said...

Some folks just "see" it. My son can do that, while I struggle hard with math of any kind. When something does click for me, though, it feels pretty good.

Great story about the plane trip.

Mary Witzl said...

Emily -- Welcome to my blog and thank you for commenting!

My daughter took her IGCSEs last year and got an A in math. If I hadn't been fully conscious at her birth, I think I might have wondered if there'd been a switch. I definitely know what you mean about being more than satisfied with your math B. The B I got in algebra when I retook it in university was the sweetest grade I've ever gotten. And how glad I am that I'll never have to take another math test.

Bish -- Yes, that moment of triumph will always be with me, even when I'm counting on my fingers to make sure that 9 + 7 is really 16.

A friend of mine has the same issue you have with phone numbers. She can remember any number using a push button phone because she has an incredible knack for pattern recognition, but she cannot remember a series of numbers. Oddly enough, can remember just about every phone number I've ever had, my social security number, and a couple of old addresses. Sadly, that hasn't helped me one iota with understanding math.

Falak -- I love that story about your brother! Your moment of clarity is right up there with my Alamo spotting.

I am scared senseless of math and have many nightmares where I'm taking a calculus exam and everybody else is scribbling furiously and looking like they're right on board, but I'm out to sea with no lifeboat in sight. Whenever I see charts with looping arcs and equations with negative integers in the denominators, I get that sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. Even after all these years, math still makes me feel uneasy.

Charles -- It's interesting to see who can do math and who can't. You have such a keen intelligence and logical mind that I was sure you were one of the mathematically inclined people. But similar things have been said about me too (blush).

To this day, I have warm fuzzy thoughts whenever I see the word 'Alamo'.

debra said...

We are all differently gifted, I think. Calculation is not one of my stronger points, but I use math all the time, and so do you. When I am making a porcelain piece, I know the proportion of the piece and how much to allow for shrinkage. At home, I prepare meals, measuring the ingredients and figuring out (aka calculating) how long to cook the dish. I go to the grocery store or the market, and figure out which item is more cost effective. I have bought paint and rugs, and we have remained reasonably solvent.
Ever done origami? or sewing? or knitting? or quilting? Math.
I think that our narrow definition of "math" in which we confuse calculation and abstract concepts with the real life stuff we all use every day, is what damages us.
Ok, I will step down from te soap box---at least for now.

angryparsnip said...

I have seen on a TV commercial were a teacher came up with a new way of counting and the kids all seem to love and understand it... it appeals to me because it seems logical to me in my mind much like the student in your Daughters Math class.

cheers, parsnip

Anne Spollen said...

Math and gym, as you already know, Mary - twin banes of my adolescence.

Computers are math. That's why I had kids - they did not inherit my dunderheadedness at math and they keep mine running. I don't even try anymore.

Great story!

Robin said...

Ha! You knew math! You just knew it your own way!

I'm so glad the girl in the short skirt gave the sneering teacher what for. There's no need for nastiness. Unless I'm teaching my own kids something. Then there's a definite need for nastiness.

Marcia said...

LOL, and now I come over to Mary's blog and she's got a math post. Wonderful story, as usual. One of the fun things about higher math, I always thought, was imagining other possible ways to work the problems. I mean, that's what the mathematicians themselves must have done, right? I have one of those "impossible" tales as well, involving a college chemistry exam.

Dale said...

I was quite clever at math, but I was always getting points taken off for getting the right answer in the wrong way, and for "not showing my work." Often I really did not know how I had solved the problem. (I was busy solving it -- how could I observe how I was solving it at the same time?) People seemed to think I was arrogant, or careless, but the truth was that I felt I could either solve the problem, or show my work, but I couldn't possibly do both.

Former primary teacher in TRNC said...

Anything divided by itself is 1:

4/4, 20/20, 43/43 all = 1.

The same applies to negative numbers:

-4/-4 = 1, -20/-20 = 1 and so on.

If you multiply something by 1, it stays the same.

20/-4 * 1 = 20/-4

So, if you've got a negative integer in the denominator (such as 20/-4), you can multiply by 1 and it will stay the same (here 1 = -1/-1).

20 * -1 = -20
-4 * -1 = 4


20/-4 is the same as -20/4

And I showed my working.

Mary Witzl said...

Debra -- You're right: I do use math in my everyday life, but sometimes I wish I knew more of it because there are times it would really help. For instance, when you're running your own business, being able to do quick calculations is invaluable. So is figuring out how to do your taxes without having to pay an accountant a fortune. Sigh...

I tend to measure by sight. I can make my own bread without using scales (though I still use them occasionally) and I generally know when to stop adding flour, though I do measure out the yeast. I can make muffins, pancakes, even cakes, all without measuring. I choose not to measure not because I'm afraid of math, but because I'm lazy. ;o)

Sewing has forever eluded me -- I had an AWFUL time with geometry! And as for origami, I can do the crane, but that's after a lot of patient instruction -- and 17 years in Japan. Everybody who spends time in Japan has to learn how to do the crane. Origami has a LOT of geometry in it (shiver!).

AP -- Anything that gets kids actively learning and thinking is fine by me. I wish that all teachers felt that way and I know many do, but they have to go along with what their principals and supervisors tell them.

AnneS -- At my high school, I believe I was the only one who was hopeless at both P.E. and math. It's funny now, but at the time it was horrible. I can still remember certain things that happened during volleyball games or in my algebra class and want to cry. Sob! Where were you then? Probably not quite in primary school...

Robin -- My daughter told this story a lot better than I did. Apparently the girl was so silly and wimpy when she was up there at the board doing her work, the whole class was stunned when she actually got the problem right. And they enjoyed the look on the teacher's face every bit as much as she did. Which made his earlier nastiness all the funnier.

Marcia -- I'm in awe of people like you, you know. I'd have given a LOT to be good at math. For instance, the ability to touch my tongue to my nose, or my hands to my feet with my legs straight -- I'm very proud of those particular skills, but I'd give them up in a heartbeat if I could just Get Algebra.

I've got an impossible chemistry exam story myself, but wild horses wouldn't drag it out of me. But now I really want to hear yours!

Dale -- I suspect that our brains work in similar ways (though yours is of course on a higher plane than mine when it comes to math). On occasion, I did manage to work out answers to equations, but find myself unable to explain how I'd done it. After I'd worked out where the Alamo was, the accountant asked me if I'd subtracted the tail winds. I thought I had, but I actually could not remember for certain. Which made me feel awfully silly.

Former Teacher -- Aw, I love you too, honey. Maybe you can explain that to me again some time when I'm having trouble sleeping.

(I take it you're finished with your lesson plans, then?)

debra said...

It also occurred to me that just as there are many ways to get to, say, the library, there are more than one way to solve a problem. Teaching our children and ourselves to generate alternative solutions to problems is a necessity in today's world.

Kappa no He said...

A closet math savant, I likey.

I never knew what math genius was until I saw my husband figure out some actresses weight by a couple of ridiculous facts (her birthday and ring size, I think, lol).

Lily Cate said...

Ugh. Math.
I'm still a little intimidated. I hate those WRONG answers.
I was always great in the classes where I could debate and argue - Which is everything except math.

I did always like geometry. I'm a builder. Can't build things without volumes and angles and whatnot. I can only handle math that realtes to things I can actually DO.

Interestingly enough, I do love to read about math. I love books written by theoretical physicists. I just wish I had a better grasp of the mathmatical principles behind it all.

Mary Witzl said...

Debra -- My husband (and I) would agree with you, but try getting the principals on board with that. Unfortunately, they're the ones who call the shots.

Kappa -- Only in Japan would they ask people to do that, right?

Lily -- You sound like you're one of those people who really could have understood math but had bad teachers who didn't know how to make it interesting. I really could NOT get it. I'm such a math-o-phobe I even tend to avoid books about math, but my husband loves them. He enjoys reading about math puzzles, different ways of solving math problems -- all sorts of math-related subjects.

Kim said...

I'm math challenged too, but know enough to get through life (i.e., balance a checkbook and figure out percentages so I know if something is truly a deal or not). Once a friend was doing an oral test with people she knew for a test run on an assignment for her sociology class (she was working on her masters). Long story short: men tended to take that math word problem and make it more complicated than it needed to be, often using the entire time allotted AND still getting it wrong. I did the math in my head as my friend told me the problem, and within five seconds of her finishing I gave her the correct answer. She later said when she did the final research with random strangers, it resulted in the same findings. Interesting, no?