The rule-breaking numbers game

Math can be frustrating, but it’s hard work, not genetics, that brings success

According to a 2011 survey by the IPSOS-Reid Institute, 72 per cent of Canadians say they lack confidence in their math and money-management skills.
According to a 2011 survey by the IPSOS-Reid Institute, 72 per cent of Canadians say they lack confidence in their math and money-management skills.
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According to Faculty of Education professor Lynda Colgan, math knowledge is important in understanding how data can be manipulated and misrepresented.
According to Faculty of Education professor Lynda Colgan, math knowledge is important in understanding how data can be manipulated and misrepresented.
Photo: 

If you’re struggling with a subject, it’s easy to feel that you lack the natural talent to excel in it.

According to a 2011 survey conducted by the IPSOS-Reid Institute, 72 per cent of Canadians reported that they lack confidence in their math and money-management skills.

This aversion to math is evident within the Queen’s student body.

“It’s boring. It’s hard to make a math course interesting because you just sit down and copy down answers from the professor,” Emily Adams, ArtSci ’16, said.

She said it’s difficult to relate math problems to the real world.

“Apart from multiplication, adding and subtracting, there’s nothing else you need in day-to-day life,” Adams, who’s enrolled in MATH 126, said.

She said she originally took the course to keep her options open, but she now plans to avoid the subject altogether for the rest of her time at Queen’s.

Lynda Colgan, a professor in the Faculty of Education, and creator of the math-based children’s television show, The Prime Radicals, said this negative view of math is widespread throughout North American society, and has real-world effects.

“It is socially unacceptable not to know how to read,” she said. “However, if you listen to people on the street, they’ll say ‘I hate math. Math has nothing to do with my life. I was never very good at math.’”

Colgan said this mentality can be observed as early as third grade, and it affects what students choose to pursue later in post-secondary studies.

According to Statistics Canada, enrollment growth in mathematics and statistics has been slower than in other disciplines. The two subjects accounted for three per cent of total enrolment in 2009, in contrast to 17.2 per cent enrolment in the social sciences. At Queen’s, only 55 Arts and Science second-year students chose to major in math, compared to 173 second-year students in political studies and 127 in psychology.

To rectify this, Colgan said we need to understand that we are constantly surrounded by numbers and mathematical patterns in the real world. She said that she runs math classes for adults and starts off her classes by showing her students a graph from a news article.

“The graph is usually wrong, or it has information that is so distorted that it is ridiculous,” she said.

It’s crucial that we recognize how data can be manipulated and misrepresented if we’re to make intelligent decisions based on this information, she said.

“It is all used for persuasive purposes,” Colgan said. “Those graphs are what newspapers, magazines and websites use to persuade people — whether it’s how to vote, what to buy or what to do.”

Scott Forster, a first-year student in MATH 121, said he believes that many students simply can’t learn any math more advanced than Grade 11 material.

“We wouldn’t be doing them any favours by forcing them to learn it,” Forster, ConEd ’16, said.

Daniel Ansari, a professor who runs the Numerical Cognition Laboratory at the University of Western Ontario, said that this notion is problematic.

According to Ansari, there are no genetic markers that determine who will be successful in math.

Mathematical aptitude is born out of interaction between genetic and environmental factors, he said, rather than the result of a single genetic trait.

The major problem, according to Ansari, is that some students never gain a solid understanding of how numbers relate to each other during Grades 1-3.

“People who lack these foundational skills can really suffer because it’s like building the foundations of a house,” he said. “If you don’t build a good foundation you are always going to have trouble with your house.”

He said few people are totally incapable of learning mathematics.

“The learning environment can be designed to help these people overcome some of these weaknesses,” he said.

Peter Taylor, a professor at Queen’s Department of Mathematics, said some students struggle in introductory math courses at Queen’s because of the focus on content rather than problem solving skills.

“If you look at a basic calculus first year course, the lectures are based on the premise that students already know how to think clearly,” he said. “But they don’t. And so if a student wanders off the street into that course, they’ll be lost from the get-go.”

According to Taylor, these students compensate for this by trying to memorize and regurgitate formulas on exams.

“With the rush of material, most students, more than 50 per cent of the students, get lost in that and the clear thinking part never comes,” he said.

Yet, for some students, the discipline is less daunting.

“There’s a lot of beauty in mathematics,” Tom Henbest, ArtSci ’13, said.

Many people he has met have a misconception that mathematics is simply calculation, he said, but the field is actually much more diverse.

According to Henbest, mathematical ideas can be applied to visual art, music, poetry, and philosophy as well as the more traditional fields of science and engineering.

“Mathematics lets us explore the universe in a way that goes beyond what we can see and touch,” the math and music medial said. “It’s indispensable for understanding the world.”

He said it’s also relevant to daily life, since managing personal finances and filing taxes are much easier if you are comfortable with numbers.

In addition to a useful set of skills, he said, mathematics provides students with a framework for thinking analytically about any problem, math-related or not.

“It’s the ability to take a problem, attack it in a regimented, mathematical way, and prove why your solution is correct,” he said.

“I think this is just as important for policy-makers as [it] would be for scientists.”

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