This is Your Brain. This is Your Brain on Math.

In this week’s astronomy lab, my students needed to make some simple calculations, mostly involving some arithmetic and a little bit of algebra to convert  hours and minutes into decimal hours (for example, 1hr 30min = 1.5 hrs) and some arithmetic. Nothing too complex, but it was nevertheless a major challenge for many of my students, eliciting groans of “I suck at math”, “I’m not a math person”, etc.

I’m sympathetic, to a point. I struggled with math quite a bit as a wee lad, and even as an undergraduate astronomy major in college (don’t tell anyone). But looking back, I realize that the reason I “sucked” at math was because I told myself I sucked at math. Once I decided I no longer sucked at math, I suddenly got better at it.

I watched this happen to a student when faced with the problem of calculating the difference in time.  He was struggling with some time calculations and asked me for help. It went something like this (and yes, I’m paraphrasing):

blackjackMe: Ok, so you need to figure out the time difference between 1:16 and 1:21. What is it?
Student (tired, frustrated): Oh man, I’m just not sure right now.
Me: No problem. Let’s imagine you and I are playing blackjack together in Atlantic City—
Student: Now you’re talking my language!
Me: Cool. So you’re dealt a 7 and a 9. What do you have?
Student: 16, a really sucky hand.
Me: And the dealer is showing an 8, what do you need to do?
Student: This sucks, I have to hit.
Me: Yeah, you do, but what do you have to pull in order to make 21 and guarantee you won’t get beat?
Student: A 5.
Me: Right, so what’s the difference between 1:16 and 1:21 again?
Student: Oh geez, of course. Duh!

I got a little lucky here – I didn’t know that the student played blackjack, I just guessed. But mathematically, the problem was the same.  The context of the problem seemed to make all the difference. At the blackjack table, he no longer seemed to think he sucked at math and suddenly the problem was a piece of cake.

A lot of math phobia gets swept away when you are presented with problems in a more familiar setting. That’s why I know my students don’t suck at math, or at least not nearly to the degree they think they do. After all, math is hard, but it’s a skill you can learn.

I’ll wrap this up with a video that caught my eye this morning that dispels a lot of the myths, fears, and misconceptions about math. I’m not a genius at math by any means, and I might have to stop and think a little bit more when solving a problem than others. But I don’t suck at it, and neither do you.

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