Adventure in Normal Life / book reviews / intellectual

insights about MATH:: the smartest kids in the world:: Part 2

Think back to your school days: was math difficult for you to learn? Was it your least or most favorite class? Do you still struggle with math? Here’s a tidbit about math and the long-standing implications of NOT getting the best math education as a child. Introducing, math:

Math had a way of predicting kids’ futures. Teenagers who mastered higher-level math classes were far more likely to graduate from college, even when putting aside other factors like race and income. They also earned more money after college.

Why did math matter so much? Some reasons were practical: More and more jobs required familiarity with probability, statistics, and geometry. The other reason was that math was not just math.

Math is a language of logic.It is a disciplined, organized way of thinking. There is a right answer; there are rules that must be followed. More than any other subject, math is rigor distilled. Mastering the language of logic helps to embed higher-order habits in kids’ minds: the ability to reason, for example, to detect patterns and to make informed guesses. Those kinds of skills had rising value in a world in which information was cheap and messy. (p.70)

Why were American kids consistently underestimated in math? In middle school, Kim and Tom [two of the kids interviewed and followed in the book’s accounts] had both decided that math was something you were either good at,or you weren’t, and they weren’t. Interestingly, that was not the kind of thing that most Americans said about reading. If you weren’t good at reading, you could, most people assumed, get better through hard work and good teaching. But in the United States, math was, for some reason, considered more of an innate ability, like being double-jointed.

The truth was that American adults didn’t like math or think it was critical to kids’ life chances. In 2009, most American parents surveyed said it was more important to finish high school with strong reading and writing skills than with strong math and science skills. It was almost as though math was optional, like drawing. Half of those parents said that the science and math their children were learning in school was just fine, and they were right, based on a standard from a different era.  (p. 77)

If you’re American, do you agree? I’m curious to see what you think. Stay tuned, for upcoming installations…

Up Next: Part 3: insights about the EDUCATION OF TEACHERS

If you missed the first installment in this series, click below for the link!

insights about::–>

insights about:: the smartest kids in the world:: Part 1



3 thoughts on “insights about MATH:: the smartest kids in the world:: Part 2

  1. Math in elementary and middle school was easy for me primarily because my mother taught me math a year ahead of where I was in school So by the time I got it in school, I already knew it cold. In high school I had geometry, trigonometry, pre-calc, and calculus. Those subjects were harder and I needed tutors since my mom didn’t remember enough to teach me herself. Basically I knew that I needed to work hard. I didn’t grasp it as quickly as some of my classmates, but I knew I could do well if I studied and worked hard.

    I’m Korean-American, born and raised in the US. My parents are immigrants.

    • Thanks very much for sharing your experience! It really adds a great dimension to this topic to have personal experiences about education, and especially as your origins stem from one of the cultures that Amanda Ripley writes a case-study for.

      Just curious, do you know why your mother may have thought it important to teach you math a year ahead, say, instead of language arts, or science? It is intriguing how MATH is this topic that marks achievement. You mention knowing you needed to work hard and study to do well in later years of math, but is this something that was instilled in you at home or in your schools by your teachers? Feel free to reply if you wish to- it is all so interesting, and I appreciate your comment.

  2. English was my parents’ second language and they didn’t know it fluently, so it was harder for them to help me. They could and did help me with spelling tests and definitions. It was harder for them to help me with grammar. And math, unlike English, followed an order: addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, fraction, percentage, algebra, geometry, etc. So they knew exactly what I was going to learn next. My mother did buy English grammar books for me and I did extra book reports for her, but I didn’t find them as helpful as her teaching me math. Math was more concrete and I needed more help in math, as I was weaker in that subject. I would have done well in English without any extra help.

    I don’t remember much about science in elementary and middle school. It wasn’t until I got into high school and took chemistry, where math was involved, where I had any difficulties. My grade was fine in chemistry because my mother hired a tutor to help me. Science in elementary/middle school covered topics such as the water cycle, reproduction,geographical features of land, elementary coverage of acids/bases, scientific method, etc all things that I learned easily. Again, there’s no predictable linear order of when you would learn these things. If I had questions, my parents were capable of helping me, but they couldn’t predict ahead of time (unlike math) when school would cover those topics.

    I took piano and art lessons on the side, but the apple doesn’t fall far from the apple tree. We’re not a very artistic family. We appreciate art; we go to symphonies, theater, art museums, etc, but we’re not any good at making art ourselves.

    It was important in my family to do well in ALL of our classes, but math and math-based science classes were the ones that gave me more trouble, so more attention was paid to it. I imagine if math came easy for me, and English was harder, then my parents would have paid more attention to English. I grew up in a very high academic achievement oriented environment, not only from my parents, but from my community and school. Being smart was very much valued by everyone. As a kid, my mother would talk about which colleges her friends’ children went to. My high school was a magnet program. It was assumed that all of us were going to college – the question was simply which one. You didn’t get picked on for being a nerd. (not to say there wasn’t any form of teasing going on, but you didn’t get teased for being smart) If you look at my graduating class, Ph.Ds, M.D.s, J.Ds, are the norm.

    If I had to point to one reason only for why I knew I could do well if I studied hard, it’s because of my mother. Sure, other people said it, but my mother was the one who worked with me ever since my first failure in first grade (long story short, I didn’t know English because I spoke Korean at home and so, I had no idea what was going on in class). My mother taught me how to read. My mother made sure I did my homework. If I got a problem wrong, she made me do it over again until I got it right. I’ve achieved a lot in my life, but it’s my mother who built the foundation that enabled me to get as far as I have.

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