601. Math Avoidance

Most people in our society learn some math in school. Some start out with, or quickly develop, a dislike for it. I did, at first. Not as intense as some people’s, but to me, math was a price I had to pay in order to get along in school. I paid the price. I had friends who loved math, and some of them considered reading and writing to be prices they had to pay. I couldn’t understand that, but those friends were likeable people, as were most of my math teachers. I understood most of what was said in math class, but it didn’t seem important or even useful to me. And luckily, by the time it started to get too hard for me, it wasn’t required any more, and I certainly didn’t opt for it.
Later, I heard that there was a gender issue connected with math – that people of one gender – the one I didn’t belong to – tended to avoid math, and that the way math was presented in school made it less accessible to one gender than to another. That sounded true enough to me. As an elementary school teacher, I tried to do something about that problem – tried to present math in ways that made it less of a boys’ club. Unfortunately, though, when I took courses or read books and essays, they tended not to be about math. It could be said that I was trying to teach children not to avoid what I was sort of avoiding.
As a volunteer at the Fort River Elementary School, I’ve been on the lookout for math avoidance. I’m happy to say that so far, I haven’t seen much of it. There are still children (mostly boys, still) who want to establish reputations as math wizards, above and beyond what average people can understand in math, but teachers seem to have found ways to give math to everyone. The math wizards are still allowed to feel special; they aren’t victims of this new approach. But while a child we’ll call Euclid is busily figuring out how to solve a problem, Jennifer is trying to figure it out, too; she’s less likely to sit back and watch Euclid do it.
I can think of two factors contributing to this change. I think one is that Jennifer’s mother, or another woman significant to Jennifer, is more likely, now, to be using math as part of her work. That means Jennifer is more likely to see math as something really worth learning. The other factor is the approach I’ve seen teachers take. Math time is now more often treated as a time for creativity. Children are now less apt to ask, “Am I doing it right?” or “Is this the right answer?”, and more apt to invent their own ways to solve problems.
I’m trying to be cautious about believing in the improvement I think I see; I don’t want to be too quick to say the problem of math avoidance is solved. Sometimes solutions are slowed down when people start to believe that problems have gone away. And maybe the Fort River School is a rare exception; I’ve written a lot about the great teachers at Fort River. But I think what I see at Fort River is part of a trend. I think there may be
cause for optimism.

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