Friday, October 18, 2013

I am sorry that math and science hurt your feelings.

When I started teaching chemistry many years ago, I noticed something at parent-teacher conferences. Parents would come in and share their feelings on chemistry.

“I never took it. I heard it was hard.”

“I loved chemistry.”

“It was hard.”

“The math in it was hard.”

It was interesting to see parents’ reactions. Some portion of the conference would involve comforting them on their chemistry/science/math experience. I told students and parents that students often hit the “wall” in chemistry. It’s their first real challenge. Once they hit it, they had to work to get over it often involving finding help, and I would be there.

Since then I have become a math tutor and teacher, and I have run into the same feelings about math. People have strong feeling on math and science. At some point they have been frustrated, challenged and even angry. Math and science hurt their feelings.

When I was taking math classes myself, I had to deal with these feelings too. As the oldest student and only female in my differential equations class, I was amazed at the feelings it stirred in me. First of all, I never ever thought back in college that I would be able to take, much less pass, differential equations. The first two weeks felt like I was drowning. I had to deal with inadequacy, feeling dumb, frustration, and that “which one of these things is not like the other” feeling when I walked into class. This is for math. Math is systematic, process-oriented, organized and mechanical. I, almost a robot, was battling with feelings as well as the concepts and problems in the course.

In the end, I think I won both battles. I hunkered down. I read the book. I read other books. I did problems. I did more problems. I fell asleep with my math books on more than one occasion. I had to remind myself that failing this class was not a reflection of my self-worth before every class. Every class. I tried to separate my feelings from the material. The material is what it is. Learn it and don’t complicate it.

When asking one of my teachers if she thought I could go on in math, she said, “Well... Yes. You have the brains and the grit.” For most of us, it takes both. So often I hear people blame the first and not try the second. “It does not come naturally for me.” Naturally, whatever that is. None of my children spoke or read out of the womb. They had to learn and practice.

Here’s my point. Math and science are not your enemies. Some of the material has been around for a long, long time and hasn’t changed. Think of math and science like a river. In a classroom setting, the river has a particular current. You may find that it is a struggle to swim and keep up. So, struggle. It’s okay. Practice will make it easier. Put your feelings to the side. Do the work, however much you need to have success. Practice will build confidence and calm your feelings. Find others who swim to help you swim too, like teachers and other successful students.

If the current is too fast, you may have to find a slower current. Thankfully here in the US we offer streams and brooks as well as rivers. In other countries, often if you can’t swim in the current, you are taken out of the water for good. If you want to understand it, there are options available for you to build a strong base at your pace, like Khan Academy and MIT OpenCourseWare.

Don’t stand at the side of the river and curse it. Math and science concepts are involved in every aspect of our lives. We need them, and we need people who understand them. If at first you don’t get it, don’t take it personally.

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