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Math has to be meaningful, or why do it?

By Murray Bourne, 26 Jan 2008

I recently received the following email from an adult reader of my Interactive Mathematics site. She has an interesting story about how she's bravely trying to figure out higher math all by herself.

Math students rarely see any connection to the real world, so it is not surprising that many believe they are learning it just to pass a test. Over to the letter...

I'm currently teaching at a Kindergarten. I like interacting with little kids, teaching them alphabets and nursery rhyme. However, the prospects are rather bleak, prompting me to reconsider my future.

I'm planning to take GCE A-level [a pre-university course]. Thing is, mathematics seems to be compulsory and I'm hopeless at it. It's the bane of my life really. Never done well and never motivated.

My past Mathematic teachers' teaching methods were rather uninspiring and I must admit that my foundation in math is pretty shaky. I took O-level Math [Grade 10 level], failed, retook it and got a B3, self studying.

Than, I ventured into an unknown territory called Calculus. I didn't take tuition because I've had enough of conventional teaching methods. I took it upon myself to research and flipped through countless reference books, including "Calculus for Dummies", "How to ace your calculus, the streetwise guide","Math student surviving guide" etc...(You have no idea how desperate I am).

On the internet, I've chanced upon 'Paul's Online Math notes', Math SOS and the like. These webmaster are well intentioned but I feel like being sucked into a black hole. Ya, I don't understand the context.

Problem is, conventional ways of teaching mathematic did nothing for me. For example, while learning differential, the opening chapter will start with "limits and continuity",then "derivative".

My usual questions will always be what is this for? Why do we need to learn this? How do we apply it? Many assessment books, reference book always start with a short and concise introduction but are usually too short for me to grasp the idea.

For two years, I've been reading up and I can understand the idea and even apply what I've learn. I can find the derivative using chain rule, quotient rule. Find integral using 'integrating by part' method and 'substitution'. Still, i didn't do well for the exam.

Now, I'm seriously doubting my ability and take the easy way out; Give up.

It was not until I discover your site that ignited my fighting spirit and retake Math. The way you explain each subject and illustrate the application in the real world is indeed eye opening and fascinating. It was then that I realise that I've been learning math in a wrong and 'disrespectful' way.

Yes, I do practices, but I'm not solving problem. I'm imitating the example given, and when they remodel the question a bit and I'm lost.

I enjoy every feature of your site especially mini lectures. Have you consider mini lecture for differential equation? Also, incorperating games is another delightful idea, though I can't say so for your choice of music. Haha. Just kidding.

I really appreciate your effort and other webmasters who dedicate their time in ending my Math drought. Thank you.

I'm glad that she found some meaning in the applications. A large part of her positive reaction to the site is her 'readiness' to learn at the time she found my site. She already had a lot of questions in her head and fortunately, she found many of the answers that she was looking for. And those answers were as much about finding the meaning behind the math as they were about understanding the math.

And I'm especially glad that the site has resulted in this outcome:

"...ignited my fighting spirit [to] retake Math."

About the music - it is supplied by on a random basis. Mostly it's good, but sometimes the tracks they choose are iffy. 🙂

In a later mail, she went on to say:

I forgot to mention, your newsletter is another great help. It further enhances and enriches my experience.

I thank the reader for sharing her story.

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