Maths being Difficult is Not the Full Story

Last weekend, I had the privilege to attend a wonderful conference in Dublin City University called Mathematics Education in Ireland. At the conference, lots of people were complaining about how the media encourages people to see mathematics as difficult. They thought it would be better if people with influence spoke and wrote more positively about maths.

One of the claims made at the conference was that even preschool children are picking up the idea that maths is difficult. Well, I agree that maths is difficult for many people. The problem is that that statement is incomplete.

Think for example of Carrauntoohil, the highest mountain in Ireland, and the Hill of Howth. You can climb both of them, but climbing one gains more kudos than the other. It’s more satisfying when you get to the top of Carrauntoohil than it is when you get to the top of the Hill of Howth because climbing Carrauntoohil is more difficult.

As humans, we like challenges. We want to climb the highest, run the fastest, or the furthest, lift the heaviest, be the strongest, and so on. That’s why the Guinness Book of Records is such an interesting read.

In his book, The Inner Game of Tennis, Timothy Gallwey describes how when I’m playing tennis with you, I owe it to you to play my very best, to give you the strongest challenge I can in order to help you get better at tennis; and you owe the same to me.

Or sometimes the contest is with myself. I want to run the five-kilometre park run faster next week than this week.

We enjoy challenges. They’re satisfying, and they help us get better at whatever endeavour we’re working on. They give us something to strive for.

Mathematics is the same. It is difficult for many of us. But the difficulty is a challenge that most people can overcome with some persistence and mental effort. By burning a few brain calories, we get better at it.

I remember I used to think that when I found maths difficult, it was because I was no good at it. But that’s not the way to see it. When I find it difficult, that means I’m learning something. Like lifting a weight, it’s helping me get stronger. That’s an important thing for us to know when we find anything difficult. It’s a sign that we’re learning, not a sign that we’re no good at it.

The great writing instructor Donald Graves used to speak to schoolchildren about writing. He’d begin his talks to the children by saying, “I hate writing.” And he’d get tumultuous applause from the students who were present. But then he’d quickly follow up by saying “But I love having written!”

Mathematics is similar. Many of us find it hard. But the joy and satisfaction of solving a problem make the difficulty worthwhile. And that’s the part the media leave out. Although mathematics can be difficult, persevering is essential. That’s a lesson we need to learn in Maths Week this year.

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