Maths Phobia : Tests, Problem & Projects
How can we learn maths better?
When I started building PleDu Interactive, someone asked me what the one-line mission of the company was. I instinctively blurted out, 'help defeat maths phobia'. Looking back, I think that authentic, gut-feel reaction still captures what I want to build. Ask anyone around you about their biggest gripes about school and the chief source of their nightmares. Mathematics tests will rank in the top three. “Why are we doing this? This makes no sense to me!” is the universal cry of the maths oppressed souls. Let us think a little deeper as to why.
This ubiquitous maths phobia partly stems from how we test competency in maths. A teacher will set up a test for you: artificial, isolated questions. You are supposed to demonstrate how quickly and accurately you can solve those tests. More importantly, you are expected to demonstrate this test-solving ability for far too many topics: from arithmetic and fractions in early grades to conic sections and logarithms towards high school and up to calculus. It is the same recipe: isolated problems, you know that the teacher already knows the correct answer. Are you good enough to figure the same out?
This competency demonstration was probably justified when our civilisation needed human computers to solve the world's problems. For example, medieval scribes used the abacus to do royal accounts. Or humans became calculators for atom bomb-making projects. Being able to show speed on manual computing was precisely that: demonstrating competency for a real job.
In an era where specific procedures are by and large carried out on computers, these tests look comically irrelevant. It might be a good time to return mathematics education to the root of what maths is all about: a study of patterns. To show competency in maths, we can focus on three universal skills. First, being able to identify patterns. Then, figure out how the pattern changes and why. Last but most important, recognise which pattern you can apply to solve a particular problem.
That sounds like a wishful marketing talk. Let us take a concrete example from school maths. Remember the formula for the volume of a right circular cone or cylinder? or how tests ask plugging in radius and height in those formulas to find exact answers? The example is classic of the test-driven, show procedural competency maths for a bygone era. But there is so much more to it. We might start by asking if there's an interesting pattern in the formula (the presence of Pi and radius squared). We can dig deeper into why the area of a circle is showing up in the procedure. A good test might ask me to justify why a cone of a given height and radius will have a smaller volume than a cylinder of the same height and radius.
Problem solving and projects are two exciting ideas to make such a maths learning environment. James Paul Gee, professor and author of the famous book, “What video games can teach us about learning”, discusses pleasantly frustrating problems. Problems are well-ordered in suitable learning environments like video games. You, as a learner, also instinctively know when you've solved the problem because you cleared a level or reached a goal. The feedback is instantaneous and forgiving. You don't fear "I got 40/100 in my 10th-grade maths test" stamped on your forehead for the rest of your life. In short, you are a problem solver, not a test solver.
The other is the idea of projects: situating maths in some more significant activity. Current school tests pick isolated problems about triangles or cones without context. But in projects, you can see how the maths fits into a larger objective of building, making something useful. There are various project types: building a game, making a carpentry model, making a robot, or simulating a biological system. But the core idea of project-based learning is the same. You don't sit through someone else's artificially designed tests. Instead, mathematics is embedded in the larger goal of making something that you find fun and relevant.
I'm spending a lot of time thinking about how such learning environments can be designed and how we can challenge some of the established dogmas about maths education. Check out https://pledu.co as an early attempt at building a better way to learn maths. Please reach out to me if these problems resonate with you. It doesn't matter if you don't have concrete ideas about what to do about it. We will figure it out. And don't forget to subscribe and share this newsletter!