Maybe Math isn’t Supposed to be Fun: Just Cutting to the Chase is a Better Approach

Ben Feller:

Children who are turned off by math often say they don’t enjoy it, they aren’t good at it and they see little point in it. Who knew that could be a formula for success?
The nations with the best scores have the least happy, least confident math students, says a study by the Brookings Institution’s Brown Center on Education Policy.
Countries reporting higher levels of enjoyment and confidence among math students don’t do as well in the subject, the study suggests. The results for the United States hover around the middle of the pack, both in terms of enjoyment and in test scores.
In essence, happiness is overrated, says study author Tom Loveless.”We might want to focus on the math that kids are learning and just be a little less obsessed with the fact that they have to enjoy every minute of it,” said Loveless, who directs the Brown center and serves on a presidential advisory panel on math.
“The implication is not Let’s go make kids unhappy,'” he said. “It’s Let’s give kids better signals as to how they’re performing, relative to the rest of the world.'”
Other countries do better than the United States because they seem to expect more from students, he said. That could also explain why high performers in other nations express less confidence and enjoyment in math.

2 thoughts on “Maybe Math isn’t Supposed to be Fun: Just Cutting to the Chase is a Better Approach”

  1. I’m not a great believer in the abstractions of philosophy, so I’m treading in an area I uncomfortable with.
    I don’t know what it is about something that makes us “enjoy” it.
    One characteristic I’ve noticed with very young, and not so young, children is the clear enjoyment of being successful. Every parent has experienced his/her child light up with glee at learning to walk backwards, going to the “potty” all by themselves, using a knife, feeding themselves.
    What about us adults?
    Do I enjoy working through difficult problems that raise my blood pressure a couple of atmospheres? No. But I plod through because at the end, there will be success — there will be Joy.
    I don’t think having fun and enjoying what one is doing is synonymous. What math teachers are geared to doing in the US, is trying to make learning math FUN, whereas, it is the only the success in getting better and accomplishment that brings real joy.

  2. I agree with Larry. Gettng better at something brings joy — that’s different from a serious area of study being “fun.” As it’s often used in contexts like “making math fun,” we seem to mean making it shallow and trivial. Real fun, the sort that leads to joy and satisfaction, involves challenge, stretching, and sweat. Real math (not rote arithmetic) is deep fun.

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