Ugh, Mathematics

In this article, Kyla Raoult discusses some important ideas about the stigma surrounding Mathematics. She also offers some valuable insights into how we can start to break it down.

Illustration by Cayla Basson

Without mathematics, there’s nothing you can do. Everything around you is mathematics. Everything around you is numbers.

Shakuntala Devi

I decided to study Mathematics to become a Mathematics teacher. I wanted to share my passion for Mathematics with everyone around me! Now, maybe you can understand why it boggled my mind when I told people that I am a math major and was met with responses like, “Oh, I hate math!” and “Math was my worst subject!” or “Eeeew math!?”.

There is clearly a stigma about Mathematics, and I wanted to find out why. I asked a variety of people that study math related degrees and those who enjoy mathematics, as well as those who don’t and those who “hate mathematics” what they thought. Why did they hate or love it, and how they thought we could break this stigma?

“I was never good at it.” This is what so many people have said when asked why they hated maths. Many people were discouraged by mathematics because they always got poor marks and thought that they were bad at it. Perhaps we need to change the way that we test mathematics. Mathematics teaches you a way of thinking. How do we test this way of thinking without discouraging students? Not everyone grasps mathematics in the same way. Students feel pressured to learn certain concepts in a certain time period, as well as feel under pressure during timed examinations. Math anxiety seems to be a real thing! I found that assignment-based assessments relieved a lot of this anxiety and also allowed me to learn and gain a better understanding of the work while trying to figure it out.

Many explain how they didn’t feel the need to fully understand because they didn’t actually know why they were doing the work. Maths is relevant everywhere and in everything that we do, we need to show the relevance of different topics and spark interest in learners from a young age. Emphasis on the application of the work might spark interest and better understanding of the work. How can we incorporate “this is why you learnt this” into everyday math homework and assignments?

Illustration by Liani Malherbe

Another red flag answer I got from so many people was, “I’m just not a numbers person”. But mathematics is way more than just numbers!? It is a way of thinking. Math is an explanation of life and the way things work. You’d be surprised how few numbers I’ve seen so far in my third year as a math major! I major in Abstract Mathematics and in Chemistry. Throughout my degree, I have faced many math problems outside of my mathematics modules. Physics, chemistry, biology and many others, all incorporate and rely heavily on mathematical concepts. You know that electron that chemists love raving about? The entire concept of this electron is based on quantum mechanics i.e., you guessed it, mathematics!

Something about mathematics is just so satisfying when you “get the right answer” or come to the correct conclusion in a proof or figure out a new way of doing something that you have never thought of before. Unfortunately, it seems that many students fall behind in math from a young age and lose fundamental concepts that carry forward when learning about further concepts on with math. Let us picture mathematics as a train. You hop on to learn a new concept, once that concept is solidified, you can hop off and go to the next train.

However, in South African schooling systems, the trains run on a tight schedule. If you take too long on train one, you might miss train two and then there is very little hope of being on time for train three and so on. The South African math train driver is savage, and very quickly leaves students behind. These students never get to completely catch up and thus they never get to feel that satisfaction I mentioned before about grasping the concept and getting that correct and beautiful final answer.

Who hasn’t been disappointed by a missed train? Can you imagine how anxious you might feel about being late for the next train? Imagine feeling like you’re constantly missing trains, or a train behind? Perhaps one of the solutions, is a much more patient train driver and a great logistics manager to take care of those left behind? In real math life, these people are your passionate teachers and your parents at home who have supportive and positive attitudes towards maths.

The change can not only start at school with teachers. It needs to start at home too! We need to emphasize to parents how easily an opinion and attitude can be picked up! “I hated math when I was in school” is a sure way to ensure that your children hate maths too…

There is a clear stigma towards mathematics in South Africa, but again, as Shakuntala Devi so concisely said, “without mathematics, there’s nothing you can do. Everything around you is mathematics. Everything around you is numbers.” So, we need to correct this stigma and motivate the youth to want to learn more mathematics, to understand why mathematics is so important and to promote creativity within the beautiful subject. Why did you hate or love mathematics? What do you think we can do to solve this stigma? Imagine life without mathematics… Yes, it would be much simpler – but that is simply because life would not exist!

Kyla Raoult

3rd Year Abstract Mathematics
(Major in Mathematics and Chemistry)

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