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Students don't have to dread math learning

How math learning supports the future of work

A strong math learning foundation positions students for personal and professional success as they move through life

Math is everywhere around us, whether we realize it or not. Every time we conduct an internet search, order something online, or automatically get recommendations for products that we are looking for, there is math at play behind the scenes. Search platforms use algebra to rank websites based on relevance, and all e-commerce and OTT platforms employ probability and statistics. But are we failing young minds when it comes to helping them develop a strong math learning foundation?

We need to reconsider how students have been taught math and encourage a strong base of skills, such as coding, data analysis, and problem-solving, which matter in today’s world and will in the future. Inspired by my understanding of the challenges faced by students, I believe children can master math, but also fall in love with it.

Where my love of math began

I have been a math educator since my university days. While lecturing senior-grade students, I realized that most of them struggled with math despite my best teaching efforts. I saw that if a student struggled with calculus in the 11th grade, the odds were that they did not master algebra in the 8th grade. I also saw that many students hurried to complete math worksheets or would ask me, “Can you just tell me the answer to the problem?” Students were too focused on the math answer, not on why XYZ was the answer or the problem’s basic math concept.

I’ve been honored to work in the education sector for over 15 years and have personally taught math to more than 10,000+ students. During that time, a continuing theme I’ve seen is the transformative impact a good education can have on a child’s academic and professional trajectory. I’ve had many students over the years who were struggling or came from extremely humble backgrounds when I first met them. But because they were fortunate enough to get good teachers and good support, they ended up becoming very powerful individuals and leaders. Every such story reinforces my belief that one of the biggest areas of focus for any government should be the education of its children. An education that helps students become deep and powerful problem-solvers in today’s ultra-fast-moving world of tech and AI will benefit the world of the future.  

Current math learning challenges

Math anxiety is as real as it gets, and your child is not alone. Jo Boaler (math professor, Stanford University) says that as much as 50 percent of the U.S. population [i] is plagued by their fear of math. Research from the University of Chicago[ii] shows that people who have math anxiety steer away from solving problems, even when a large reward is offered.

According to a recent survey gauging student confidence in their math abilities, proficiency, and correlation between perceptions of math and performance, their fear continues to grow each year. The survey of U.S. students showed approximately 82 percent of students in Grades 7 through 10 struggle with anxiety around math learning. The survey also finds that fear of math increases as students move from middle school to high school.

While math confidence has always been an underlying issue in the U.S., the pandemic and at-home learning amplified the issue, accelerating loss of interest and fear. This comes at a time when the need for mastery of math fundamentals is at an all-time high. Future jobs are dependent on a sound understanding of math, leading more students and parents to look for outside resources, such as tutoring, to help children catch up and gain confidence. On a related note, math-learning access and equity for all students, regardless of their location, economic ability or background, must be reviewed and increased. While these challenges also existed before the pandemic, remote learning heightened them as well.

Jobs of the future

Our world needs inventive thinkers who will work to solve the biggest problems we face today in every sphere of life–medicine, education, sanitation, environment, economy, and others. Learning math is like learning to ride a bicycle or learning to swim. It might seem difficult at first; one might even fall or flounder on some occasions. But, over time, you learn to do it intuitively. 

The demand to truly learn and master math fundamentals is at an all-time high. To win in the 21st century, the U.S. must invest heavily in making sure students build a valuable STEM skillset from a very young age – including math, coding, and data science – as these skills are becoming disproportionately more important for the jobs of the future.

Creating stronger math minds

Today, education systems around the world focus on memorization rather than understanding. This is a narrow outlook, oftentimes with short-term results. Children require a rich and complex curriculum that is a mixture of learning and supporting emotional growth. I have seen first-hand how students embrace and benefit from a math curriculum that is highly intuitive and uses visuals, games, puzzles, simulations, and innovative technology, like interactive whiteboards and GeoGebra. This makes math easy and fun for students of all ages and levels. 

Children thrive when learning by reasoning, not by rote. We need to replace the blackboard way of learning with the reasoning way of learning, where knowing the WHY is more important than the WHAT.

By revisiting how we teach math knowledge, we can help students prepare for the STEM and tech jobs of the future.3 Math gives us a way to understand patterns, quantify relationships and predict the future. Math helps us understand the world — and we use the world to understand math. The world is interconnected. By using math, students can make sense of the world and solve complex and real problems.

[i] Math anxiety and stress in adults | Announce | University of Nebraska-Lincoln

[ii] Math anxiety can outweigh promise of higher rewards | University of Chicago News

3 The Future of Jobs Report 2020 | World Economic Forum

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