Slay­ing the ‘math mon­ster’

Don’t be anx­ious: It’s not about num­bers, it’s about learn­ing how to think

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - STYLE - CELIA STOREY

The tweet that raced around the in­ter­net be­fore truth had time to put on its shoes was this: In a del­i­catessen in Pitts­burgh, a mys­te­ri­ous sign had ap­peared ad­jur­ing cus­tomers to “Please Re­frain From Dis­cussing Math­e­mat­ics While Wait­ing in Line.”

Peo­ple in Pitts­burgh couldn’t find this deli (be­cause it’s in Con­necti­cut). Nev­er­the­less hu­mor­ous folks felt free to de­cide it was a real sign posted by a real lunch­man tired of hav­ing his to­tals sec­ond-guessed by know-it-alls. Wasn’t it?

Well, no. Noth­ing like that (see ac­com­pa­ny­ing story). But the thing is, that ex­pla­na­tion was plau­si­ble. These cashiers these days, they can’t do the math, right?

But who can? Math is too hard. Only num­bers-peo­ple can do it.

Again, not true. But as a state­ment of a com­mon be­lief?

Mmm, could be.

Denise LeGrand sees ev­i­dence in restau­rants, in stores. Maybe she’s out with friends and it’s time to split the bill, work out the tips. “It scares peo­ple, prob­lem-solv­ing in gen­eral,” she says.

Be­fore cash reg­is­ters made de­duct­ing dis­counts a mat­ter of know­ing which icon to tap, she of­ten helped sales clerks tally her bill. Mean­while, she was think­ing, “How do they take care of their fi­nances? How do they do a bud­get?”

But then, LeGrand is one of those num­bers-peo­ple. She runs the Math­e­mat­ics As­sis­tance Cen­ter (MAC) at the Univer­sity of Arkansas at Lit­tle Rock and teaches cal­cu­lus in the depart­ment of math­e­mat­ics and sta­tis­tics. And by the way, she’s dis­mayed by how peo­ple re­act when they learn her pro­fes­sion — “You’re a math teacher? Oh, I hated that.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever en­coun­tered some­body that said they like math,” she says sadly.

Sam Lawhorn, a re­cent UALR grad­u­ate with a bach­e­lor’s de­gree in math­e­mat­ics, is dis­mayed that it’s re­spectable to be in­com­pe­tent with num­bers — peo­ple nearly brag to one an­other about it.

“How of­ten do you hear peo­ple say, ‘I can’t read. I hate read­ing’?” he asks.

But “it’s so­cially ac­cept­able to say, ‘I hate math,’” LeGrand agrees.

Mean­while, de­mand is ris­ing around the globe for pro­fes­sion­als in fields re­lated to sci­ence, tech­nol­ogy, en­gi­neer­ing and math­e­mat­ics (STEM). That’s where the jobs are go­ing. To meet the need for qual­i­fied work­ers, “many gov­ern­ments and pri­vate or­ga­ni­za­tions have re­vamped STEM ed­u­ca­tion and pro­moted train­ing to en­hance math and

sci­ence skills among students and work­ers,” re­searchers from the Univer­sity of Chicago write in a re­port pub­lished in the Fe­bru­ary is­sue of Cur­rent Di­rec­tions in Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence


Such ef­forts, they write, typ­i­cally fo­cus on feed­ing students more math and sci­ence knowl­edge faster or bet­ter. But af­ter look­ing at data from 64 coun­tries where 15-year-olds take the Pro­gram for In­ter­na­tional Stu­dent As­sess­ment’s tests in math, sci­ence and read­ing skills, the re­searchers sug­gest that ap­pre­hen­sion of math — math anx­i­ety — plays a big enough role in the abil­ity to master STEM sub­jects that it needs to be ad­dressed.

Other stud­ies have found that test-tak­ing pro­vokes anx­i­ety in gen­eral, but math anx­i­ety ap­pears to be a force by

it­self. Stud­ies have seen test tak­ers’ heart rates el­e­vated by math but not by other sub­jects, for in­stance.

Even students who do well in math classes can be gripped by enough anx­i­ety they make er­rors. Anx­i­ety about math makes peo­ple bad at math, re­searchers say.


Al­lay­ing anx­i­ety is one of LeGrand’s mis­sions as di­rec­tor of the Math­e­mat­ics As­sis­tance Cen­ter — where univer­sity students in any de­gree pro­gram can re­ceive one-on-one or group tu­tor­ing. Stu­dent tu­tors of­fer other students help with home­work, study skills, test prep and gen­eral math ap­pre­ci­a­tion.

This lab, on the fourth floor of the En­gi­neer­ing, Tech­nol­ogy and Sci­ence build­ing at UALR, is a suite of flu­o­res­cent-lighted rooms equipped with com­put­ers. The cen­ter has a “loud side” for group study and tu­tor­ing and a “quiet side,” for strug­gle — or play — in si­lence. It has a fac­ulty-stu­dent lounge, toys, couches, white boards, in­spir­ing slo­gans. Sam­ple in­spir­ing slo­gans: You’re only a fail­ure when you stop try­ing.

If Tetris has taught me any­thing, it’s er­rors pile up and ac­com­plish­ments dis­ap­pear.

The dif­fer­ence be­tween ge­nius and stu­pid­ity is that ge­nius has its lim­its.

You’re unique, just like ev­ery­body else.

“Some of those have to be erased,” LeGrand says.

Lawhorn vol­un­teered as a MAC tu­tor dur­ing his four un­der­grad­u­ate years, and he also tu­tored for pay at more than one Math­na­sium store. He and LeGrand see pat­terns in how math-hat­ing adults think:

■ Fail­ure equals stu­pid­ity.

■ Math­e­mat­ics is about mem­o­riz­ing for­mu­las.

■ There are “math brains” — good with num­bers — and then there’s ev­ery­body else. ■ Suc­cess means get­ting the right an­swer and there is one right way to get that an­swer.

All of those are bad at­ti­tudes, they sug­gest, adding, “Stop it.”


MAC tu­tors give students ad­vice on re­lax­ation and self-calm­ing meth­ods, like deep breath­ing. They stress the ben­e­fit of not wait­ing un­til the last minute to tackle a sub­ject — do your work, in other words. Put in some time.

Also, they ad­vo­cate for bet­ter at­ti­tudes:

“You need to fail,” Lawhorn says. “Fail­ing is part of the learn­ing process. You have to go, ‘What the heck did I do wrong?’ That’s when you start putting to­gether, ‘Oh, I didn’t see this fully. I didn’t see this nu­ance. I didn’t see, con­cep­tu­ally, what was go­ing on.’”

Fail­ure is a tool. Free your mind to learn from fail­ure.

Also, “mem­o­riza­tion is not what you do in math,” LeGrand says. “You have to learn the process.” Cer­tainly, know­ing or at least rec­og­niz­ing a for­mula can help, but once students un­der­stand why for­mu­las work, they can rein­vent them as needed.

Mem­o­riz­ing for­mu­las doesn’t help any­one to be more log­i­cal.

“Peo­ple as­so­ciate math­e­mat­ics with num­bers, nat­u­rally,” Lawhorn says. “They think it’s the study of num­bers. But it’s re­ally more the study of pat­terns. I think the hu­man brain is wired for math­e­mat­ics in gen­eral.

“You wouldn’t be able to walk if you weren’t wired for pat­terns, for ex­am­ple. We are wired to look for pat­terns. We like pat­terns. We don’t like chaos.”

By the way, LeGrand says, nei­ther she nor Lawhorn were born “nat­u­rally good” at math. They have to study and think. She re­views like crazy just be­fore she teaches a class. But the deal is, need­ing to work at math doesn’t make them feel like fail­ures. They have learned to en­joy the ef­fort.

“You will find that with most math­e­ma­ti­cians,” Lawhorn says. “If they’re not stuck on them­selves, they’ll tell you ‘I had to work at that.’”

Like other sub­jects, math does have a spe­cial vo­cab­u­lary and a gram­mar dif­fer­ent from stan­dard gram­mar. LeGrand stresses that do­ing well in math re­quires read­ing — pa­tiently — just as in other sub­jects.

But math is dif­fer­ent from other sub­jects in how it builds upon it­self. A his­tory stu­dent doesn’t need to know Arkansas his­tory to be able to read about the his­tory of Lit­tle Rock. In con­trast, count­ing your toes comes be­fore mak­ing change from a dol­lar comes be­fore trigonom­e­try. Each topic adds skill sets that are needed later.

LeGrand doesn’t de­fine suc­cess as get­ting the right an­swer. Suc­cess is the de­light of fig­ur­ing out how to get that an­swer.

“Peo­ple say, ‘I’m never go­ing to use al­ge­bra!’ But that’s not re­ally the point,” she says. “The point is you’re learn­ing how to think. You’re learn­ing how to process.”

By the way, Lawhorn notes, “One of the things I tell peo­ple in the lab is ‘You’re not nec­es­sar­ily ex­pected to re­mem­ber ev­ery­thing you’ve ever been taught.’ Yes, we hope that you re­mem­ber all of these lit­tle things, but you’re not go­ing to if you’re not us­ing them reg­u­larly.

“You read all the time, right? We con­stantly have to read. If you’re not some­one who picks up a book, you have to read menus, you’ve got to read traf­fic signs, you’ve got to read in­struc­tions, you’ve got to read sub­ti­tles — all sorts of things. But how of­ten do you have to do any sort of com­pli­cated prob­lem-solv­ing with math­e­mat­ics? The av­er­age per­son, not too of­ten.”

From this, two de­duc­tions: ■ Hav­ing trou­ble re­mem­ber­ing the qua­dratic equa­tion for­mula doesn’t mean you’re not a “num­bers-per­son.”

■ To re­mem­ber your math skills, use them more of­ten.

A great way to do that is by play­ing.


Use the com­puter ap­pli­ca­tions called “apps” to play math games, even kid-level games, on your com­puter, smart­phone or other mo­bile de­vice.

■ The free app Bed­time Math (bed­ of­fers a fun fact fol­lowed by math quizzes at dif­fer­ent lev­els. On June 27, the ques­tions in­volved goats be­ing used as lawn mow­ers; the app linked to a video of 800 goats munch­ing the lawn of Lawrence Berke­ley Na­tional Lab­o­ra­tory.

■ More chal­leng­ing is Eu­clidea Geo­met­ric Con­struc­tions (eu­, an­other free app with a web­site ver­sion. Based on clas­si­cal line and com­pass prob­lems, it can be played through 120 lev­els, from ba­sic to very, very hard. ■ Man­dala color­ing books are mar­keted as calm­ing for adults. “You can make your own man­dala pat­terns with a draw­ing ruler and a com­pass,” Lawhorn says. “That’s a handy thing for when you’re cry­ing be­cause you’re so anx­ious.”

■ Khan Academy ( is a free tu­tor­ing web­site with videos and in­ter­ac­tive games for sub­jects from kinder­garten to col­lege. ■ LeGrand notes that danc­ing and mu­sic are math­e­mat­ics in mo­tion. So … dance, play an in­stru­ment.

■ Sudoku, KenKen, magic squares, chess and check­ers are “recre­ational math” — nog­gin-nudgers that use the same skills of logic and de­duc­tion needed for ad­vanced math, with­out re­quir­ing any knowl­edge of ad­vanced math. ■ The Wall Street Jour­nal’s Var­sity Math col­umn poses weekly recre­ational math puz­zles here:

■ Martin Gard­ner (1914-2010) wrote a long-run­ning col­umn of such amuse­ments for Sci­en­tific Amer­i­can. The web­site “Martin Gard­ner Puz­zles” com­piles some of his best:

■ Search YouTube for videos about Gard­ner’s origami “hex­aflexagons.” Here’s a great one:

If all else fails, just say the word “hex­aflexagons” over and over.

Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette/KIRK MONT­GOMERY

Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette/CELIA STOREY

Denise LeGrand says do­ing “recre­ational math­e­mat­ics” like a magic square can be fun even if you never ap­ply those men­tal skills to math.

Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette/CELIA STOREY

says that the Tower of Hanoi, a tra­di­tional puz­zle from China, is a math toy.

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