So many of us have negative feelings about our experiences learning math, and we walk around thinking of ourselves as “not math people.” And there is so much hype these days about math being easy and natural and fun for kids to learn, but then again we see so many of our children struggling.
Why, truly, is math so hard (let’s face it, it is!) for kids and adults alike? Part of the answer lies in our brain structure and the sorts of mental contortions math requires.
What makes the human brain so special is its ability to learn. This is why human beings have been able to inhabit every part of the globe and invent and create all the incredible technology and art we have produced. We are flexible innovators who can plunk down into almost any environment, and thrive!
Our brains are equipped to learn all sorts of skills that are not natural to us, including reading, writing, and mathematics. But that doesn’t mean these skills always come easily.
We are born with certain innate capabilities (vision and language acquisition are two examples), but then we are also able to learn many other skills by making neural connections between our inborn “brain centers.” We learn to read by rigging neural pathways from our vision centers (there are at least thirty) to our language centers. (Braille readers link from tactile centers to language centers). We learn to write by building connections between vision, fine motor, and language centers.
And we learn math by making an even wider assemblage of mental jury-rigs. Math, after all, isn’t a single topic. Arithmetic, algebra, geometry, calculus, statistics, discrete math; these are all very different pursuits. Depending on the kind of math we’re trying to learn, we will need to link in very complex ways to vision, spatial sense, temporal sense, quantitative sense, memory, language, and/or other brain centers.
Hunter-gatherer societies without formal systems of mathematics have words in their languages for “one,” “two,” “few” and “many,” suggesting that there’s a basic number sense that is inborn. Even newborns can tell the difference between small numbers like two and three; bored babies staring at a scene become interested when the number of items changes.
But the path from “few” and “many” to calculus is a long one. And it’s a real one. Every step along the way to math expertise requires changes in brain structure. I find it helpful to imagine an actual path being hacked through the underbrush, gradually widening with use into a dirt road, and eventually becoming a paved road and finally a super-highway.
Another image my students appreciate is that of exercise. You don’t go to the gym one time, lift some weights, and immediately have a buff body. Nor should we expect to go to math class, listen one time, and immediately “get it.” Just like muscles, math understanding is built gradually, with regular practice, over time.
And just like weight-lifting, math practice isn’t always fun. It’s hard work and your brain will be sore afterward. That’s to be expected. I remind my students of this all the time. Math is hard, but if you keep at it, it gets better.
[photo of innovative inflatable homeless shelter at the Museum of Modern Art, New York City]