Math Challenge

4 ways the education system kills curiosity in children today

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Reading Time: 3 minutes

Math is seeing a downward spiral today in conventional avenues that include schools, tuition classes or other math learning programs. There are a number of problems with the way math is taught and learnt today. Here’s a list of 4 main concerns.

1. Superficial math learning:

What is this? A grade-5 boy who has learnt fractions and decimals, will be able to tell you that 1/2 is a fraction, and that 0.5 is a decimal. However, if he’s unable to point out the equivalence between 1/2 and 0.5, he has not really internalised these concepts. For him, 1/2 and 0.5 are disconnected ideas.

Now imagine a grade-8 boy, who’s learnt that the area of a triangle is 1/2 into base into height. His understanding is usually limited to applying this “formula” mechanically instead of learning why it holds true.

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These are only a couple of examples, but this is what happens with most children in most cases. Math is taught to them as a disparate collection of facts and formulas, with no exploration of interconnections. The “why” behind the “what” is missed entirely. Thus, what ends up happening is a very superficial version of math learning.

2. Unnecessary emphasis on calculations:

It is a general perception that being great at math means being able to mentally calculate fast.

Nothing could be farther from the truth!

Mental calculations is only a small subset of math ability in general. The standard mathematics curriculum emphasises heavily on repetitive calculation drills, memorising multiplication tables, and so on. Programs which teach students faster calculations are very popular with parents because of the notion that children learning to calculate faster are getting better at math. The truth is that a child who can calculate fast but cannot apply his skills has not become great at math.

3. Broadcast method of teaching:

In most settings across schools, tuition classes or math programs the teacher broadcasts the content, aimed at her class as a homogeneous whole – even though the class may have students of a wide range of abilities. There is no personalisation. This is extremely limiting in its impact. Different children learn at different speeds, and the best way of learning is learning-by-doing .

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Remember how we learnt to cycle or swim? Not by seeing someone else cycle or swim, but by doing these activities ourselves! How can we expect a child to become great at math just by seeing another person do it? A personalized, learning-by-doing system is what is needed – but most math learning avenues fall short here.

4. Fixed mindset vs growth mindset:

In typical settings, children are labelled into categories – weak, average, strong. Teachers and parents alike reinforce this labeling system. Children are led to believe that some of them have an inherent gift for math, while others will never be great at it. This is extremely unfortunate.

A child once labelled weak will internalize this idea of being poor at math and will never believe in his own ability to excel at math. Similarly, a child once labelled strong will stop making efforts to improve further. We need learning systems which promote growth mind-sets instead of fixed mind-sets.

All these problems have negative consequences on the child’s life, the most fundamental one being that most children lose their curiosity to learn deeply. Students find it convenient to learn by rote or memorisation than from principles. The natural curiosity of our children is being killed systematically by the way they are learning math. Here’s an example from our own experience:

Garima*, a sincere grade-9 girl, was being taught geometry in class. The teacher was giving the students a very interesting historical perspective around the evolution of geometry. To the teacher’s surprise, Garima said “Sir, just tell us the results of the theorems and the most likely questions on the exams – we’ll mug it up.

The spark of curiosity inside Garima had vanished probably because of the way she had experienced math through her childhood. She could have gone on to do great things in life, but her mind’s evolution had been severely hampered.

This unfortunate reality applies to millions of kids out there. The lack of a strong math learning foundation means that they would never become what they could have, and they lose out on harnessing their full potential later on in life.

Cuemath calls upon the entire “system” – schools, teachers, parents & institutions to act before it’s too late! Our children are too precious, let’s not inflict upon them a poor experience of mathematics, the most beautiful system of thought there is.

Join us in our quest of making children great at math.

*Name changed.

Make your child great at math with Cuemath. Find your closest center today.

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Manan Khurma

Manan is the founder, lead program designer and CEO of Cuemath. He is a graduate from IIT Delhi and is also an acclaimed mathematics author with Pearson and McGraw Hill. His mission is to make every child in India love math the way he does.