Solving Math Problems with Math Problems

To a man with a hammer, everything is a nail. To a math professor who sees the need for more female math students, everything is a math problem.

The context of her article- there are not enough females in STEM- and the core of her argument- that this comes from an institutional lack of confidence in female abilities in STEM- are going to be growing increasingly debatable in the future, but they aren’t necessarily bad causes to get behind. Advocating for more equal access to education is an important cause.

The fundamental issue is her complete misunderstanding of what makes a student love a subject, what makes a human intrinsically motivated to learn.

All learning isn’t — and shouldn’t be — “fun.” Mastering the fundamentals is why we have children practice scales and chords when they’re learning to play a musical instrument, instead of just playing air guitar. 

Something tells me that the author either doesn’t play a musical instrument, or at least doesn’t enjoy it. As a kid I played the trumpet in school band. I didn’t particularly enjoy it. I didn’t practice scales and I never sounded that great. I haven’t touched a trumpet since. 

That pattern could be repeated for any subject in school, from high school Spanish to whatever mitosis is. We did the drills because we were told to, because we needed to get through, then we we dropped it.

On the other hand, I picked up the guitar after high school, without the help of a credentialed teacher (oh my!). I sucked at it for a long time. And before you argue that the guitar is inherently “cooler” than the trumpet, just google Chet Baker- the honest-to-goodness coolest musician ever. Regardless, at a certain point, you realize that if you want your fingers to move like Clapton, you’ll need to work on your scales. And you do it.

The same goes for all skills that actually matter in life. We learn them when we need to learn them. It doesn’t really work that well the other way around, or else we’d all be bilingual literary geniuses with perfectly balanced bank accounts.

The root of her argument- that students need more self-belief when things get hard- is definitely a problem in our current education system. Something tells me that mandatory math drills aren’t quite the open door to confidence she makes them out to be. Drills are a great tool, but only after you have buy-in from the student. 

We could force every kid to practice scales and chords on the guitar every day in school. How many of them are going to really going to play with the passion and prowess like Jimi Hendrix at the end of it? How many will hate it more and forget it sooner?

Link to Article: Make Your Daughter Practice Math. She’ll Thank You Later.

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