It is never too late to understand math.
At a young age, many of us had the experience of being told that “we are just not a numbers person.” Books have been written on this social phenomena, and half of all Americans report Math anxiety. As it turns out, mathematics is really about learning jargon, a jargon that is so fundamental to humanity that we consider it vocabulary.
Beyond that, for a lot of people, the confidence that they develop in math affects their confidence in other areas, especially academics and the future. Research has shown that preschool math scores predict fifth grade overall scores, indicating that it was not just mathematics affected. According to other studies, children that do more mathematics at a young age are better readers, writers, speakers, and problem solvers.
Mathematics is special, in that beyond the psychological aspect, there is this problem solving aspect that occurs while engaging in exercising different modalities of the mind. For example, when a student moves from identifying how many to producing: “can you give me n objects?” The student must hold the number on their head as they count objects and remember to stop when they get to the number asked.
It is like chewing gum and walking at the same time. Together, the psychology, confidence, and exercise work together to foster success outside of the subject. What impact can success in math have on your overall success in life?
We feel like there are two reasons for this.
Think about it this way: When you start using a physical tool, like a screwdriver or a hammer, you’re not automatically the most proficient carpenter there is, regardless of whether or not you have carpenter tools at your disposal. But, the more you use those tools, physical or, in math’s case, mental, the better you get at using them. When you’re performing mathematics, you’re practicing using these mental tools that you can then use in other areas or situations. For example, take one of the more basic tools that children learn when developing math skills (and a tool that some adults still cannot master!) — the ability to solve a math problem in one’s head, to work with numbers without seeing them written in front of you. When you can accurately solve that difficult math problem in your head, no paper or pen required, think of how confident you’ll feel. Which leads us to the second reason success in math empowers children for life…
The more that you develop the mental tools, the more comfortable and confident you are using them. Children are more geared toward learning language than math, but if you teach them about the language of math (as the Elephant Learning app does), then they’ll take that language and begin using the associated mental tools in everyday life.
We constantly hear from parents that after their children have used the Elephant Learning app for a while, they become so comfortable and confident using these tools that they start using math to solve problems in their everyday lives. It’s no longer just an academic chore — it’s a real-life problem-solving tool that they feel empowered to use, because the Elephant Learning app helped them to understand it.
Unfortunately, getting kids to develop these mental tools and reap the confidence that follows is easier said than done. It all comes down to much of society’s attitude regarding math. We mentioned above how many people think they’re “not a numbers person,” but where did they develop that attitude? Does it actually reflect their ability to do math?
Of course not. That attitude develops in the classroom.
As soon as a child struggles with math, they’re given the excuse (from teachers, parents or their peers) that it’s okay, because they’re “not a numbers person.” Once they hear that, it’s an excuse to not really try to get any better at math; it’s an excuse to not practice using those mental tools. And when they never start using those mental tools, the confidence never develops. Here’s the catch: there’s no such thing as being “not a numbers person.”
In reality, anyone can be a numbers person if they’re willing to practice using the mental tools math requires.
Unfortunately, if a child is passed through the system like this and they never develop the mental tools that would make them confident, they may firmly believe that they’re “not a numbers person.” This may provide the opportunity to begin thinking that it might not be such a big deal to also be “not a history person” or “not a literature person.” Suddenly, that excuse has the potential to bleed over to every other subject.
But what if we have a more math literate society? One that is filled with students that have developed those mental tools and confidence? The United States actually had a heavy math literate society not too long ago. It helped the Allies win World War II and took us to the moon, and led to the advent of the internet, just to name a few accomplishments. But we’re not creating environments for those types of math literate people to thrive anymore. Instead, we’re 69% to 75% math illiterate at the high school level. Somewhere, there’s a disconnect.
However, more and more, math is absolutely required for success in a growing number of fields. Beyond STEM fields, look at marketing. Once upon a time, marketing was an entirely creative field, but now it’s completely data-driven. Now, if you want to go into a non-math-related field, you have to choose a humanities major and statistically, those majors generally lead to lower-paying jobs.
Unfortunately, because so many people are math illiterate, more and more people are entering the job market at lower-paying jobs that lead to more student debt and a lower earning cap overall. Apart from the individual repercussions of math illiteracy, a math literate society as a whole could offer worldwide benefits.
If we produce more math literate scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians, they’d be solving the world’s problems. At the same time, if you could create entrepreneurs and politicians who could also understand the math and what these math-focused professionals were saying, think what could be possible.
To make this kind of math literate society possible, though, it has to start now — at your kitchen table, with your child. It requires that we toss out the idea of being “not a numbers person.” It means giving children the mental tools and confidence they need to succeed, whether that success comes from you working one-on-one with them on a regular basis or your child using the Elephant Learning app.
Math anxiety — a fear of getting math concepts and problems wrong and the resulting avoidance of math because of that — is something I’ve seen many times over my life and not just in children. It’s just as prevalent in adults and, believe it or not, despite my PhD in math, I experienced math anxiety as a child, too. While some children allowed their math anxiety to grow into a lifelong avoidance of math, mine fueled my competitive spirit and led me to push ahead of my peers, learning advanced math concepts even when I wasn’t able to get into the advanced math classes my middle school offered.
It is never too late to understand math. At a young age, many of us had the experience of being told that “we are just not a numbers person.” Books have been written on this social phenomena, and half of all Americans report Math anxiety. As it turns out, mathematics is really about learning jargon, a jargon that is so fundamental to humanity that we consider it vocabulary.
At the end of the day, algebra comes down to these three steps: define, recognize and produce. No matter if your child is in middle school or a PhD math program, it’s all about defining (can you understand it?), recognizing (can you identify it?), and producing (can you use it to produce results or new research?). If you can help your child with these three aspects of algebra at home, they’ll be better set up for success in the classroom and the future.
Most students learn to multiply in school by memorizing their multiplication tables. There’s nothing wrong with memorizing multiplication tables, but a child must know what the multiplication tables mean. If they’re multiplying seven by six, they need to have that picture in the back of their head of six groups of seven or seven groups of six. If not, they don’t have a true understanding of what multiplication actually is and it won’t serve them later on in life.Take, for example, a child who knows that five times four is 20. She can solve the multiplication problem with ease.
In early elementary education, the first concepts that we work with are counting and comparisons — that is, quantity comparisons versus what's bigger and smaller. We might show a child an image of four objects and an image with 12 objects, and ask them to identify which has more or fewer. It's important for children to know the difference because it sets the stage for addition and subtraction.
Making math fun for your child within the confines of your everyday world is easy. Let’s say you’re walking down the sidewalk with your child and they say, “Oh, there’s a train.” That’s an opportunity for you to ask how many train cars they can see. How many engines are on the train? Even if it’s just their toys sitting out on the floor, you could ask them, “Can you give me three toy dogs right now?” Then your child has to identify what’s a dog, what’s not a dog and how many of them equal three.Take whatever your child can identify and formulate a math lesson that’s on their level.