Math and Pain

My first memory of math is a classmate groaning about it. Elementary school probably. Then in highschool, when we heard the news of algebra coming up.

Part of the problem is that the hard work of learning math isn’t linked immediately to an enjoyable outcome. Kids don’t find out that it will help us earn a lot of money, and if teachers did show them how, they wouldn’t care because they are too young at that point. The teachers could first amp the kids up on how much they love their parents and want to help them, want to give back, how proud they could make them. That might help.

But the big thing is how much pain we learn to associate with doing math at an early age. It doesn’t have to be stressing. I know people who love it. My linear algebra teacher? I bet she thinks about math the way I think about music and writing. Can’t stop won’t stop. How did she get there?

She learned somewhere along the way that sitting and working through an equation can be rewarding. The process itself can be rewarding. You know you’re going to solve it, or you’re going to get something out of trying.

The current situation is that students sit around and add social proof to each other’s distaste for it. What if things went the other way?

Over time, you can change your feelings towards something by associating different sensations with it. This can be done on purpose by a professional or on your own. When you stub your toe, you learn really quick to avoid that corner. It’s the same with any other activity. But it can go the other way too. You can learn to associate good feelings with an activity.

What if teachers spent five or ten minutes at the start and end of every math class asking them what they’re looking forward to, what was rewarding about the experience?

Over time, this focusing effect will compound. Their memories of math would be altered from a focus on negative feelings to positive ones. And very quickly the students would become better at math.


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