Why Is Everyone Bad at Math?

We are very much influenced by our childhood experiences. If you lived during a bull market during your young years, chances are high that it will make you a different investor than someone who was born in a recession. The same applies to math. Someone traumatized by math during their childhood will only in very rare cases learn to appreciate the beauty of math later on in life, whereas someone who is able to follow up with math during their student years will have a good perception of math for the rest of their life.

The reason why everyone is bad at math isn’t because of the way the subject is taught. Math is usually taught by explaining a particular concept, and then letting students do a series of exercises to understand it practically. This is probably not a bad approach.

Not 100%? Try again

The problem is that you can “pass” a test at school with a grade below 100%. The reason why this is a problem specifically with math is that this problem doesn’t apply to other subjects such as history, for example. You don’t need to understand prehistory to understand the Middle Ages, whereas you do need to understand algebra in order to understand calculus.

But what if you only understand 80% of algebra? Then you will inevitably get into problems when you start learning having difficulties with calculus. Truth is that you should only be able to move on to the next subject in math if you understand everything about the previous subjects.

Not having the highest grade on a math test simply means you lack some essential understanding to answer questions about the topic. But you will still pass, assuming your grade isn’t terrible. And the following year, teachers will assume that you have that understanding, except you only have a part of that as you were not able to get 100% right on those tests.

And that’s when the problems start. You then start to have difficulties learning those new subjects, as you miss some essential understanding in the subjects which had been previously covered. The year after, you simply can’t follow up anymore with the math courses you follow as you completely failed the year before that due to your initial lack of understanding. The math trauma kicks in, and you will hate math for the rest of your life. This is unfortunately the experience the majority of us have had in high school.

Math isn’t a spectator sport

But wait, that’s not all of it. There is also the fact that math is not a spectator sport. You get good at math by doing math like you get good at coding by coding. Problem-oriented subjects like these which require a deep understanding demand a lot of practice. You can’t just read your textbook like you would for other courses.

You should do as much exercises as you can, while always keeping in mind that what matters is to have a deep understanding of the subject at hand. It’s not enough to just be able to calculate limits. It’s also important to understand what limits actually are, why they are used how they are useful. Just watch 3Blue1Brown, it’s not hard.

More seriously, this deep intuition is very important. Have you ever asked yourself why you can’t divide by zero? Why the product of two negative numbers is a positive number? Why dividing a number by infinity always equals zero? While these questions aren’t essential to do the math, they really are to understand it at a fundamental level.

Scary symbols

Finally, there are the symbols. While math symbols exist for a various very good reasons, they have one downside: they scare those who are already scared of math even more.

Let’s say you are having difficulties with a specific subject. Seeing those incomprehensible symbols will make it even less likely that you will find the confidence needed to tackle the hard task of understanding the math.

The right approach here is to reason about math as a language. The fact that Chinese looks “scary” because of its thousands of symbols doesn’t mean you can’t learn it. In fact, over 1.3B people have successfully done so. The same applies to math, it’s just a language. Except it’s not a language made to communicate everyday things, it’s a language made to communicate logic in a concise and rigorous approach.

Conclusion

Math is like a building, it builds up. If you miss a floor of the building, it’s over. And like a building, you need strong foundations. You need to be able to express yourself with algebra like you express yourself in English. It should feel like learning a new language, because that’s what math really is: a universal language to communicate logic.


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