Why Math in School is Boring; the Curriculum’s Blind Spot

It almost seems like the more time I spend in class the less I know.

We’re given a two page, black and white worksheet on what we are to know.

On it, are a couple formulas, as well as a few applications in word problems. These happen to be the formulae for an arithmetic series:

The two equations on the sheet. These two are equivalent. A little background knowledge is needed. If, like me, you were curious to find the intuition behind these formulas, check out this video.

This part of the curriculum, arithmetic sets and series, has been moved up and down between grades 10 and 12 for the past few years in the BC curriculum. The problem that I will illustrate is not local, but has found itself home in nearly every nook and cranny of grade school math, and in many cases, nearly every subject’s curriculum.

The source of the problem can be tracked to a single philosophy that seems to have defined much of the BC (as well as global) k-12 syllabus.

Essentially, application over reasoning.

Just looking through a typical arithmetic textbook for a high school student can reveal a lot about the way students are taught. There is a lot of formulas being thrown, a lot of word problems, and a ton of different questions. The colors, style, and information differ from textbook to textbook and edition to edition, but one thing remains consistent. The lack of a reason behind these formulae. Essentially, a lack of proof.

“Mathematics” by Terriko / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

This lack of intuition can build a student’s math knowledge on an unsteady foundation, where one may be able to calculate fluently but are clueless when trying to explain why exactly a formula looks the way it is. As well as this, it can extinguish the natural flame of curiosity that becomes so important in STEM fields.

As the world continues to puts funding and emphasis on STEM based careers, this shortsighted way of teaching math is in direct contrast to where society aims to be. As technology and formerly complex, top-notch skills and tasks (such as machine learning) become more widely accessible and usable by a wider society, people with an understanding of the esoteric concepts behind these simplifications will be in the position to make the most change. The schooling system as it is directly undermines this ability and may even eliminate a drive to understand the concepts behind formulae.

I am not a ‘math person’. (then again, no one naturally is a math person).

Yet, the lack of a grasp of the theories behind simplifications annoys me. More than just annoys me; it is often hard to focus on math when the intuition is not clear.

The 21st century confronts us with amazing visualization techniques to raise the bar of understanding. Here’s a outtake from one of 3blue1brown’s videos on neural networks.

And when I find out the reasoning for one, often from great resources like Khan Academy or fantastic Youtube channels like 3blue1brown, a level of comfort can be attained that is unattainable without understanding.

Math is a lot more fun, or if not at least more interesting, when there the emphasis shifts from understanding from memorizing. Math classes can begin to feel more like learning rather than straight information absorption.

And although this problem shows up all over the curriculum, I focus on math because it is the easiest — and perhaps the only subject — where this problem can be feasibly solved.

Let me explain: Math is practically at the bottom of the ladder of scientific reliability. Math relies on barely any concepts to exist, it is innately defined.

As we climb up this ladder of reliability, past physics, chemistry, biology, and psychology, the reasoning behind phenomena gets harder and harder to completely explain, as it requires a larger and larger breadth of knowledge to fully understand. That’s why I can’t fuss when things are kept brief in high school biology, for instance, since there is no way to explain them further until a higher level course is reached.

But there isn’t excuse in math. Proofs of so many things can be attained with a base level of knowledge, whatever that base may be depending on the grade. Learning proofs is a lot harder than memorization. It can be frustrating, and it often is — but understanding is priceless.

The fix to this, theoretically, is quite simple. A change in the curriculum that emphasizes understanding on the same level it emphasizes application. Textbooks that go into details behind formulae, and online visualizations.

But most importantly, it requires a change in the dynamic of the math classroom. One of increased student-student-teacher discussion behind concepts, lessons that focus first on understanding, and then moving on to application (which is still very important!). Additionally, The concept of formulae proving should be introduced earlier than university. Quizzes and tests should have questions that test the understanding of students.

But, perhaps the toughest, the entire cultural zeitgeist that has embedded itself in the minds of nearly everyone that is so obsessed with memorization, fast calculation, and and high test scores needs to change. It will be slow and scary ride, but this shift starts in the classroom. ★

Adam Dhalla is a high school student out of Vancouver, British Columbia. He is fascinated with the outdoor world, and is currently learning about emerging technologies for an environmental purpose. To keep up,

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15 y old learning about machine learning, as well as a lifelong naturalist. Climate activist in Vancouver. Writer. Visit me @ adamdhalla.com