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It’s fun to hate math

By Murray Bourne, 10 Aug 2005

This is part of an ad for an investment company:


  1. A lot of people hate mathematics - and this kind of advertisement helps to perpetuate that hate
  2. When mathematics is taught in a much more practical, applied and hands-on manner, and when we let computers (or calculators) do more of the tedious algebra, then we have some hope of more students liking math.
  3. The left hand side of their second equation makes no sense mathematically...:-)

See the 27 Comments below.

27 Comments on “It’s fun to hate math”

  1. Underwood Dudley says:

    The difficulty with teaching mathematics in a "more practical, applied and hands-on manner" is that algebra and subjects beyond it are, for almost everyone, not practical, nor are there any applications that anyone needs. If you doubt it, ask the next ten people you meet when they last had to use algebra outside of a classroom. Or, look at algebra texts: the "applied" problems are those foolish ones about cars going from A to B and so on--the ones that everyone rightly makes fun of. If there were any "real life" applications of algebra, the textbook writers would include them. The reason they don't is that they can't.
    Some people just don't take to mathematics and there's nothing that can be done about it.

  2. Murray says:

    Thanks Underwood for your comment.

    ...nor are there any applications that anyone needs.

    "Anyone"? So all the scientists, engineers, accountants, financial analysts, architects, doctors, etc etc will never use algebra. Really?

    ...look at algebra texts: the “applied” problems are those foolish ones about cars going from A to B and so on−the ones that everyone rightly makes fun of. If there were any “real life” applications of algebra, the textbook writers would include them. The reason they don’t is that they can’t.

    Most mathematics educators (who end up being textbook writers) don’t know how mathematics is used in the real world because they have never been shown how (I used to be one of them). This is my whole point - if mathematics is taught in more practical ways, then students (and teachers) will put more emphasis on utility and less on algebra for its own sake.

    Some people just don’t take to mathematics and there’s nothing that can be done about it.

    The first part of your sentence I agree with, the second I feel is too fatalistic. It’s the "middle" that I am aiming at - the ones who don’t hate it but will learn to if they see no use for it.

  3. vlorbik says:

    wow. woody dudley reads squareCircleZ.

    i figure he's right on this one.
    algebra for "applications" is *changing the subject*
    (generally to something much less interesting).
    plenty of applications in the computer world,
    but even *that*'s changing the subject.
    doctors? architects? really?

  4. Jonathan says:

    I think there are wonderful applications of mathematics in the sciences, but they depend on learning the requisite math first.

    For what it's worth, we do bits and pieces of algebra with squiggles and happy and sad faces. They make more interesting variables than x's and y's.

  5. Murray says:

    Thanks, Jonathan for your comment.

    What worries me is the number of students (the vast majority) who never get to see any of those "nice applications" because everyone is so busy churning through meaningless "drill and kill" algebra and when we finally get up to the interesting applications, it's always "Sorry, no time for that. Let's move to the next chapter.".

    What I am suggesting is that we should start with the application - and I don't mean some boring statement at the beginning of the chapter. I mean some actual physical, hands-on event that our students will more likely remember - and will have a better idea why they are being made to do the algebra plus they will more likely have a transferable skill.

    I'm not talking anything fancy. For example, before doing a section on the parabola, students could throw balls and observe heights and distances at different times. (Technology would help here). Students have a lot of conceptual difficulty with the difference between x-h and x-t graphs. They also have difficulty with minimums and maximums at points where the first derivative is 0.

    But above all, the vast majority of teenage students are well and truly in the Piagetian concrete operations stage. They find it very difficult to abstract and yet we try to force them to do so very early.

    So my view is:

    1. Start with an interesting (and hopefully intriguing) real problem. (Not some made up, patently impossible textbook nonsense, as I believe you ranted against on your blog, Jonathan.)

    2. Then do the algebra necessary to solve the problem.

    3. Then, solve the problem.

    The reason most people see no use for mathematics is that they have never seen a use for mathematics.

  6. Darmok says:

    Unfortunately, I tend to agree with Vlorbik. As a doctor, I use little to no math in my line of work. Addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division I use. But logarithms, exponentiation, trigonometry, algebra, calculus—I don't think I've used them once, aside from my own private mathematical recreations.

  7. Alan Cooper says:

    estimating or correcting dosages more appropriately the first time by understanding drug metabolism rates and not projecting linearly when that is not appropriate (yes trial and error may get there eventually but I've seen cases where failure to apply a little algebra has led to unnecessary delays in reaching an appropriate dosage regimen for symptom relief without peak-dose side effects)
    understanding enough statistics to intelligently read articles about epidemiology and treatment effectiveness

    force balance, heat loss, air flow, construction cost...
    (or did vlorbik just mean "interior decorator?"?)

  8. Murray says:

    Yes, Alan, I also feel that doctors should surely "understand enough statistics to intelligently read articles".

    Most doctors do medical research at some point in their career - surely math comes while they are researching?

  9. rar says:

    I find it irresponsible and erroneous for a doctor to make a statement that he/she uses “little to no math” in their work.

    Algebra is all about finding the unknown from the known data as well as looking for patterns. If doctors truly use only the basic operations, then any fifth grader should be ready to jump to medical school.

    Is there no statistical data used in the medical field? Do doctors not deal with the exponential growth of bacteria? Doctors don’t have to work with rates and ratios?

    Tsk, tsk for putting such a statement out there. It’s no wonder kids have developed such a negative attitude towards math. And you don’t need to become a doctor to use algebra.

    Personally I’d rather use algebra to find the area of my walls and determine how much paint to buy than to have ten cans sitting in my basement because I bought too much (Oh wait, did I use my Geometry as well? Sorry for the sarcasm).

    It’s funny that in America it’s expectable to say to your kids “that’s alright I couldn’t do math either” but not alright to say “that’s alright, I couldn’t read either”.

  10. Murray says:

    Thanks, Rar, for your enthusiastic response.

    I’m wondering if there are different levels of math being talked about here.

    One level is "automatic" - for most people, this is addition and multiplication and concepts like "8 is bigger than 4". But for people in technical areas, the "automatic" level of math starts to include trigonometry, logarithms, calculus and so on.

    Another other level is "I recognise that from school but I don’t remember how it works". For most people, this is the algebra, trigonometry and logarithms that were learned for an exam and then promptly forgotten.

    So when the good doctor says that he does not use math, perhaps his "automatic" level of math is quite a bit higher than the most people’s and he is using math without being all that conscious of it.

    It’s no wonder kids have developed such a negative attitude towards math.

    This is the key issue, of course. And I agree with you that role models (including parents) have a big influence on students’ attitudes to math.

  11. Cookie_Juran says:

    I think that mathematics becomes difficult when the all dreaded application problems are taught. I detest the way most are worded and they are just out right confusing. I also see that some teachers have little patience for teaching thier subject to those that are not 'gifted' at math and do not automatically get it at first. The top educators and textbook writters need to develop a BETTER system of teaching these very important algebra concepts (I personally do NOT CARE how many more dimes than nickles I have in my pocket if I have x amount of dollars and y amount of quarters...come on now).
    Get off of trying to baffle children, and adults- (as I am learning math at the age of 38, finally in college...and yes, I FORGOTT ALOT). Teach them and me in a sensible manner instead of relying on memorization and shoving 50 poorly worded application problems on them to make them and I feel stupid.

  12. Murray says:

    Thanks for your passionate comment, Cookie_Juran.

    There are maybe 2 main reasons why students are required to learn algebra:

    1) So they can solve real problems later
    2) So they can understand what people are talking about, when they use expressions like "I have twice as many nickels as dimes in my pocket." (But how often do people really say that stuff?)

    Perhaps this is what we should do. We should make collections of real things that real people write and say.

    Those real things need to be understood by Joe Citizen - either in the newspaper, on TV, in a magazine, etc.

    Then we use those statements as a basis for text books. Then you are less likely to get "poorly worded application problems" that are written by text book writers. (Actually, I suspect you would end up with even more poorly worded real application problems, but we would need to see.)

    I have a particular interest in this topic. You may like to see the Apples and Oranges Puzzle in an early IntMath Newsletter (it's point #4 in that mail).

    Good luck with your studies.

  13. Aaliyah says:

    Math never came easy for me and I suppose that is because of how it was being taught to me. What made sense to the one teaching me did not exactly make sense to me.

    It actually took just one teacher to make it work, as far as more advanced math, and now I am a million times better simply because she told me, "If you know the "why" you can do this."

    So I figured out the why and it was just simply understanding each and every step of a problem without short-cuts. I figured the short-cuts could come later when I had actually understood the information in it's longer form.

    She was right. I still work most of my problems out in their longer forms simply because it works better for me.

    I thank my teacher for taking the time to help me understand the math instead of making me feel "stupid" because I did not know how to do it. I passed her courses with straight A's and found that I actually could do math.

    Good thing since Pharmacy is one of those fields where math is used in my regular life. :o)

  14. Praveen says:

    Math is for idiots. You don't have to know math to do anything in the real world. I can run very high quality computer models and read the data that they give.

    Math education is not needed, and we see that because the world goes round, and this is a great nation.

  15. Murray says:

    Hi Praveen and thanks for your input.

    And which 'great nation' are you talking about, exactly? Not that one that has sent us all into the economic abyss, I hope?

  16. Praveen says:

    I am talking about the very same nation, though this is true (surely) everywhere. I was insinuating that you don't need to know math to be prosperous. You need progress, and common sense and computer codes and calculators. Math is a dead subject. You need to know how to make the best of the given opportunities. After all, how useful was Einstein's general relativity theory, or the fact that Fermat's last theorem has now been proved?

  17. darren says:

    Televisions, cars, trains, airplanes, satellites, spaceships/rockets, sound systems, movie cameras, cell phones, mp3's, dvd's, computers, electronic musical instruments, electronic circuits, vacuum tubes and the transistor (ughh yeah, your life would be completely different with out those), bulldozers, the design of buildings, chemistry, physics (the laws of our freakin' universe that is), medical machines such as cat scans and mri's which make heavy use of physics and chemistry, carbon dating, gps, the splitting of the freakin' atom, optimization problems (how companies do not waste money), the internet... all of these would not be possible without knowledge of mathematics. Also, all major advances in technology seem to be correspond to advances in mathematics (the industrial revolution came after the theory of calculus,differential equations, complex numbers, and alongside with abstract and linear algebra. If you believe math is not important, than you obviously have not done any "advanced" mathematics. Math is probably the most important thing I can think of.

  18. Murray says:

    Thanks for your enthusiasm, Darren! You're so right - we are consumers (and users) of math every day.

  19. Kabaxi says:

    You can use algebra to guide laser's to a target - and possibly the target is highly radioactive... I suppose the only things most people want to guide their hands towards is... Okay you know.

  20. Estrella says:

    hahahahahaha i used to be a math wiz in elementary but once i started middle school it all went downhill from there
    now im in algebra and i hate class even though i sit in the front, it just doesnt grab my attention anymore and i cant stand math anymore!!!!!!!!!

  21. Frans says:

    I hate math too and it will never takes any place in my heart.because math similar with jobless and only fool people who like to think 'bout it.this life already difficult and why we want to make it more?crazy and freak math!

  22. Murray says:

    @Frans: And what's that sound I hear? Doors of opportunity slamming shut...?

  23. Praveen says:

    In spite of my pessimistic rant a few posts ago, I still hold on to being an 'engineering' scientist with leanings towards Math. You can't 'hate' the thing. One either makes a choice of leaving the world of Math or sticking with it. But yes, blessed are those few to whom has been presented the joy of experiencing the thing. However, as kids we don't know that.

  24. Murray says:

    @Praveen: Yes, the dilemma of all education - we need to introduce students to a wide variety of things, often before they are ready, in the hope they will get interested in at least some of them. But many get killed in the process, especially math.

  25. Jake says:

    Its funny, I was one of those people in high school and middle school who was considered "unteachable" when it came to the subject of algebra. I graduated by the
    "short and curlies" so to speak. I joined the work force as a general laborer, quite possibly the most grueling job one could do. It was HORRIBLE, so i went to college. I think that the folks on here that have said there was no use for mathematics must be pretty shortsighted. What they don't realize is that without the most hated of subjects their lives would not exist as they do in a modern context. None of this conflagration would have occurred without the assistance of algebra. Algebra is the fundamental basis for the tremendously powerful tools of calculus, trigonometry, and differential equations. Discrete mathematics is responsible for the operating system you are currently using to browse the web.
    The study of mathematics in general should be taught only to those who actually enjoy it and, who can mentally handle its rigors. It not out of the ordinary for people to be frustrated by their studies. One must be mature enough to handle this momentary lapse in sanity and have the determination to press on. A trait uncommon in American students; which is why our nation is under economic strife.

  26. Murray says:

    @Jake: Thanks for your story. A key issue you raise is that most students (and yes, I mean most) are not ready developmentally for the math they are asked to do throughout school, hence struggle. In your case, you re-visited math when you were older and you were highly motivated to succeed this time.

    I'm not sure I go as far as to agree "The study of mathematics in general should be taught only to those who actually enjoy it", but it's certainly true that many students are put through some unnecessary hardships.

  27. Stephen says:

    The question "hate math?" refers to the financial mathematics involved in optimizing a portfolio. They are offering to take care of this onerous work for you, so you can sit back and enjoy earning money. I love math, but I can’t see the advertisement as an attack on mathematics.

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