I'm not a 'math person.' But is anyone?

My struggles with math have brought me years of shame and anxiety. But is it me or the way it's taught? The clear lines of right and wrong in the subject contribute to the rigid way it is taught. But is that the best way to learn?

Nishat Tasfia
Published : 7 Feb 2023, 07:34 PM
Updated : 7 Feb 2023, 07:34 PM

A few days ago, I saw this Chinese video clip of an older brother trying to help a teary younger sister with her math homework. After failing to help her solve the problem, the brother gives up hope altogether and tears up too.

Watching these two kids cry over math brought back so many memories. Memories of nervously waiting for math exams and staring at the numbers, figures, graphs, and words that made little to no sense. I realised that several minutes had passed, and I still didn't understand the problem. Staring at the question paper and panicking because I was running out of time and still had no idea how to begin. My brain clouded with random, irrelevant thoughts, getting overwhelmed, shutting down, and feeling utterly hopeless as I gave up on solving any math.

Many people have trouble solving math problems and performing well in math exams. Many play down their struggles, saying they're not really 'math people'. But what does that truly mean?

I've known classmates who'd get top-tier marks in math exams and who solved math at lightning speed with unbelievable ease. I have seen people participate in competitions and have fun doing math. I've even seen less accomplished students' eyes light up with passion when they figure out the solution to a problem. For the longest time, I looked at them with admiration and awe, asking myself, "How are they on such good terms with math?"

To me, all of them were 'math people.' For most of my school life, I tried unsuccessfully to overcome my anxiety around the subject and become one of them. To be clear, my expectations were pretty low:

1. I wanted to pass the math exam in school

2. I wanted to avoid my brain shutting down whenever I saw a math problem

These are essential criteria for surviving school. I didn't need to genuinely fall in love with mathematics.

I didn't think about how hard math was for me for a long time. I was used to getting pretty poor marks in the subject, but the axe fell in Class 5 when I got a 19 out of 100 on a mock test for my Primary Education Completion exams. It was a shocking score. I was supposed to sit for the exam in a few months, which completely shattered my self-confidence.

I had to go to tutoring for math three days a week. That year, my sole resolution was to get past the board examination, so I accepted my fate. Looking back, the tutoring wasn't enough.

I needed more help than just spending hours on the same problems to overcome my issues. But I didn't know that at the time. Instead, I kept charging into the same issues, banging my head against the wall, hoping I would magically become a 'math person'; if I practiced as much as possible. I browsed the internet for fun problems and other math resources. I told my parents I would like to compete in math Olympiads because they would be eye-opening and refreshing. On the day of the regional round, I lied to my parents about having stomach pains and managed to get out of it.

At some point, I started to base my self-worth on my ability to solve math. When I failed to grasp a concept quickly or come up with an answer within the time limit, I would fall into an endless loop of self-doubt, frustration, and shame. I slowly started to believe that math was genetically impossible for me or that I was just plain dumb. It wasn't about just passing one exam. It began to shape my self-image and identity. I was terrified of making mistakes, of the sneers others hid behind their backs, of the idea that my whole life depended on doing well in tests.

The idea that some people are genetically gifted at doing math is silly. But the way the subject is taught does not help. I grew up in an environment where teachers and parents praised kids who got the answers right and disapproved of those who couldn't figure them out. When I was young, it was hard to understand that their successes were not innate. That it wasn't some natural gift.

When I was younger, I wish someone had taught me that not every question demanded a clear-cut right or wrong answer. That some questions didn't even have such a thing. I wish I had the freedom to make mistakes without staking my future. I wish I didn't panic when I saw my friends blazing through multiple-choice questions while I struggled to solve them in the time I had.  

As I've seen more of the world, I've concluded that different people think differently. They learn differently, too. Some can grasp theory quickly. Others are more practical. Some people devour books effortlessly. Others struggle to finish a paragraph without their attention wandering. Some can pick up every nuance of a teacher's words. Others do better with diagrams and illustrations. But we expect kids to have the same takeaway when they are taught the same way. And we obviously and subtly punish them for not reaching our standards. With its clear delineations of right and wrong, math is even sharper on this matter.  

Mathematics should not be put on a pedestal as a complicated topic that only a few can grasp. Instead, we should push schools to develop a more flexible, less stressful, and less threatening method of teaching it in school. Kids like me may never become good at it, but may spare them some shame.

This article is a part of Stripe, bdnews24.com's special publication with a focus on culture and society from a youth perspective.