Why Is Math So Hard?

I spent the final 12 years of my working life before retiring teaching high school English and creative writing. While this was not really that remarkable, what made it a little more remarkable was that a majority of the students at this particular school were, to put it mildly, math geeks! To say that this fact made my job interesting is certainly an understatement, but during my first year what made it even more interesting was when a couple of students, during some free time in my class, asked me if I could help them with a math problem. I did my best to hide the sheer panic on my face, before looking at the problem they’d presented me with, scratched my head in that “I-really-need-to-concentrate-way,” made some encouraging noises like: “Aah,” “hmm,” and “aha,” before looking at them and saying: “This might as well be written in Sanskrit. Just so you know, tenth grade math was the best three years of my life!” As is the case in most schools, word got around, and the math questions mercifully stopped.

So, why is math so hard? There are, as you can imagine, no end of theories as to why this subject is so difficult for some people (myself included), but the one that I remember hearing all the time was that in order to be good in mathematics you needed to be “left-brained,” or a logical and analytical thinker. If you are “right-brained,” or creative and free-thinking, you are doomed to struggle with math. Of course, this theory has been “scientifically” proven false; many mathematicians will vouch for the fact that math is also “creative,” which is a problem (pun intended!) for me because tenth grade science was the best four years of my life! One of the other popular reasons for math’s difficultness is that it is cumulative (even typing that word hurt my brain!), meaning that a foundation is built, and then new concepts are taught, which are based upon your understanding of this foundation, and then these are, in turn, used to understand more complex concepts, and on and on it goes. When I was in high school (in the Dark Ages, as my step-kids like to say), I was really good at architectural drawing and had this dream of one day becoming an architect; that is, until I looked at the math requirements needed for architectural school, yet another dream dashed. I mean, it does not bode well if you cannot understand the basic “foundations” of math if you want to be an architect!

Consider the following math problem: Y contains only ingredients A and B in a ratio of 1:2. If solution Z is created by mixing solutions X and Y in a ratio of 3:11, then 2520 ounces of solution Z contains how many ounces of A? Say what? Now, if one of my high school buddies read that, he’d yawn and give you the answer in ten seconds or less, while I would still be reading it three days later. The only thing I can discern from the above problem is that some of the letters of the alphabet are missing and they are not in the right order! Not convinced? How about a couple of math jokes? 1. Three statisticians go out hunting together. After a while they spot a solitary rabbit (it’s a joke!). The first statistician takes aim and overshoots. The second aims and undershoots. The third shouts out: “We got him!” 2. Two random variables were talking in a bar. They thought they were being discrete, but I heard their chatter continuously. Didn’t get the jokes? Yeah, me neither, so here is the handy explanation: When you roll a die, you get a 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6. Since there are a finite number of possibilities, the statistic involved is called a discrete random variable. When you select any real number from between 0 and 1, there are an infinite number of possible draws. The statistic involved is called a continuous random variable. Well, that certainly clears things up, I hope it did for you as well. No…Yeah, me neither!

Perhaps my all-time favorite explanation of a math joke is the following: Q. How many mathematicians/physicists does it take to screw in a lightbulb? A. It only takes one mathematician to screw in a lightbulb. Proof: Let the “bulb screwing number” Np of a profession P, be the minimum number of people of profession P that must be assembled to screw in a light bulb. For any pair of professions Pa and Po with p. + ps and N…It goes on for another 300 words! My preferred answer: One.

What sparked this “attack” on mathematics was a front-page story in today’s (Dec.15, 2022) L.A. Times: “Regents Approve UCLA’s Move To Big Ten.” For clarification purposes, “Big-10” refers to one of the 24 Conferences in college football, and UCLA’s football team has been part of the “Pac-12,” another Conference, since 1928. For me, this is a real-world conundrum that further contributes to my difficulties with math. Why? It’s quite simple. Four of the 24 Conferences have numbers associated with their names, presumably informing us how many teams in each particular Conference: Atlantic 10, the aforementioned Pac-12, Big-12, and Big-10. In a perfect world, maybe! The Atlantic 10 has 15 full teams and four associates, the Big-12 has ten plus four future members, the Big-10 has 14 teams. Only the Pac-12 has 12 teams…well, not for long, because when UCLA and also USC move to the Big-10, the Pac-12 will have only ten teams, and the Big-10 will go from 14 to 16. Does your head hurt yet? Hang on while I pop a couple of Advil!

Los Angeles, 2022

2 thoughts on “Why Is Math So Hard?

  1. I think there are no bad math students – just bad math teachers…and my apologies to anyone who teaches math. Not all brains work the same way, or see relationships, systems, even numbers, the same way. You were probably taught the way your teachers was taught, or how their individual brains worked, and it didn’t sync with yours. I got geometry in HS easily. My brain is very visual-spatial. But Algebra was a nightmare. It just didn’t make sense. Then 4 years later I had a pants-on-fire Algebra 1 teacher in college who taught the same concepts in 3-4 different ways and I fell in love. No, not with the teacher! With Algebra in particular, and math in general. IT. IS. NOT. YOUR. BRAIN.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. While I would like to blame it on my teachers, it would not explain how one of my best buddies with the same teachers used to get 100/100 on algebra and geometry tests, without even opening his book, and my scores after studying my butt off were usually in the 30-40 range! I am the opposite of you though. Algebra was a bit easier for me and I absolutely sucked at geometry! But, thank you for that vote of confidence :-).


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