This headline is a lie. It’s not that I think algorithms are bad. They’re not. Honestly, I think that’s how many of us move through our days without killing ourselves or someone else. We habitually take the medications prescribed by our doctors; we cook our eggs (and avoid salmonella); we follow the steps for safely backing our cars out of the driveway; we put on our socks before our shoes.

Even certain mathematical algorithms are very useful, like the order of operations (or PEMDAS).

But in the end, I think that dictated algorithms are not so great for people, especially people who are learning a new skill, and especially when the algorithm has little to no meaning or context.

Don’t know what an algorithm is? Check out my earlier post defining algorithms. 

People Aren’t Machines

There are many different educational philosophies that drive how we teach math. For generations, teachers worked under the assumption that young minds were tabula rasas or blank slates. Some educators took this to mean that we were empty pitchers, waiting to be filled with information.

This is how teaching algorithms got such a strong-hold on our educational system. Teachers were expected to introduce material to students, who were seen as completely ignorant of any part of the process. Through instruction, students learned step-by-step processes, with very little context.

In recent years, however, our understanding of neurology and psychology has deepened. We understand, for example, that children’s personalities are somewhat set at birth. And that their brains develop in predictable ways. We are also beginning to realize that certain types of learning and teaching promote deeper understanding.

The result is a better sense of students as individuals. Instead of a class filled with homogeneous little minds, we know now that kids (and grownups) are wildly different–in the way they digest information and approach problems. (To be fair, this is closer to John Locke’s original theory of tabula rasa, in which he states that the purpose of education is to create intellect, not memorize facts.)

In terms of a moral, there’s not much I recommend in this Pink Floyd video, but I can certainly identify with the kids’ anger at being treated like cogs in the educational system. Besides, it’s cool.

A Case for Critical Thinking

Certainly critical thinking is not completely absent in the teaching of algorithms. It’s marvelous when kids (and adults) make connections within the steps of a mathematical process. But critical thinking is much more likely, when the process is more open-ended. Give kids square tiles to help them understand quadratic equations, and they’ll likely start factoring without help. Let students play around with addition of multi-digit numbers, and they’ll start figuring out place value on their own.

You can’t beat that kind of learning.

See, when someone tells us something, our brains may or may not really engage. But when we’re already engaged in the discovery process, we’re much more likely to make big connections and remember them longer.

That’s not to say that learning algorithms is bad. But think of the way you might add two multi-digit numbers without a calculator. Instead of stacking them up and adding from right to left (remembering to carry), you might do something completely different, like add up all of the hundreds and tens and ones — and add again. In many ways, you’re still following the algorithm, but in a deconstructed way.

And in the end, who cares what process you follow–as long as you get to the correct answer and feel confident.

Teaching Algorithms is Easier, Sort Of

So if discovering processes is so much better, why does much of our educational system still teach algorithms? Well, because it’s more efficient in a lot of ways. It’s easier to stand in front of a group of kids and teach a step-by-step process. It’s harder–and noisier–to let kids work in groups, using manipulatives to answer open-ended questions. It might even take longer.

But I say that based on what we now know about kids’ personalities and brains, we’re not doing them much good with lecture-style classes. So in the long run, it’s easier to teach with discovery-based methods. Kids remember the information longer and get great neurological exercise. This allows for many more connections. At that point, the teacher is more of a coach than anything else.

In the end, we all use algorithms. But isn’t it better when we decide what steps to follow, through trial and error, a gut instinct or discovering the basic concepts underlying the process? That’s where we have a big edge over machines. After all, humans are inputting the algorithms that machines use.

Photo Credit: teclasorg via Compfight cc

I’ve been talking with grownups about math for more than three years now. Parents, 20-somethings, writers, DIYers, seniors… they all have something in common: a piss-poor relationship with math.

This bad attitude is probably your fault.

The stories I hear — over and over and over again — all point to a major breakdown in the educational system. Sure, we can blame standardized testing or the state standards themselves. Middle school teachers can blame elementary school teachers. High school teachers can blame middle school teachers. College professors can blame high school teachers. And by all means, let’s not leave out the parents.

But you, dear math teacher, have control over only one thing: yourself. So what are you going to do about it? Here are some ideas.

Be Nice

If I hear one more math teacher opining about how dumb his students are, I think I might scream. Why do people teach, if they don’t like their students enough to be nice to them? Your students aren’t dumb. They’re uneducated. And guess whose job it is to educate them? If they come to your class unprepared, tough noogies. You get the kids you get. You were hired to overcome those obstacles. That’s the job, and if you can’t deal with it, perhaps this isn’t the right profession for you.

Don’ take your frustrations out on your students. Quit talking down to them. Quit berating them in public. Quit rolling your eyes or slamming doors. Be a grownup. They’re kids, and they respond to kindness and respect. Give it to them, and you’ll likely see motivation.


You don’t have to be Martin Luther King, Jr. or Oprah. But lose the this-is-good-for-you-so-do-what-I-say attitude. It doesn’t work.

Look, you teach math for some important, personal reason. What is it that motivates you? Dig deep, find that thing, and share it with your students. Go for that spark every single day. It’ll make you feel better and get your students motivated.

It’ll also make your job MUCH easier. An inspired kid will work, will stop playing around when you ask her to, will make deeper connections. An inspired kid will meet you halfway. This gives you more energy to devote to that kid who is still messing around in the back of the room or who is ready for the next unit before the rest of the class. Inspiration means autonomous learning.

Teach Students, Not Math

Wait, did you actually think you were going to teach math? Sorry, but that’s not the job. Math teachers don’t get to immerse themselves in math all day long. Nope, your job is to teach kids. Whiny, pain-in-the-butt kids who are more interested in last night’s episode of Pretty Little Liars than their upcoming geometry test. BECAUSE THEY’RE KIDS!

Whether you like it or not, most of your students don’t give a flying flip what x is. Most adults don’t care either. You want your students to learn math? Recognize each and every student as a person, not a container to be filled with math facts. Let them experience the subject for themselves. Let them teach you.

The most effective teachers have students who will follow them to the ends of the earth. And that’s no accident. Students of all ages can spot a bullshitter in two seconds flat. They yearn for genuine relationships with adults. You give them that when you recognize that math isn’t the be-all-end-all of their day. You give them that when you see them as a whole person, not just a math student.

Be Real, But Not Too Real

Having a bad day? Own it. Frustrated with how things are going? Take responsibility. All classrooms — even the most traditional — are two-way streets. When you are real with your students, they’ll be real with you.

But expect to get some pretty raw stuff in return. Kids can’t act like adults, because — guess what? — they aren’t gown up yet. You’re modeling for them every, single day what it’s like to be a grownup. When you react to their realness with childish behavior, well, that’s a pretty strong message.

And for goodness sakes, draw some lines. Sure, you hate standardized testing. (What teacher doesn’t?) But really, do you need to share that ad nauseam with your students? Heck, you might have tremendous disdain for how administrators are running the place, but keep your trap shut on that subject. These kids aren’t your friends. And again — they’re not grownups.

Notice something? There’s not a single number, mathematical concept or teaching strategy in the above advice. I really believe this from the bottom of my heart: It’s not about the math. It’s about how you relate to your students. Every.single.time. You have way, way more power than you can even fathom. Your students carry the messages you send to them — throughout their lives. Try it. Ask five friends about their math education. I guarantee that four of them will have detailed, sad stories about why they hate math.

You have a chance to turn this around for thousands of students. And honestly, if you’re not up to the task, get out of the freaking way. Let someone else do it. Because you can do a hell of a lot more damage to one student than a kid could ever do to you.


Laura Laing (informal therapist to math-haters of all ages)

Today is the first day of school here, so I decided to repost this Math at Work Monday interview with Tiffany Choice, a middle school math teacher in Fairfax, Virginia. You might be a little surprised by how she uses math in her work!

I know what you’re thinking. “It’s so obvious how a 6th grade teacher would use math! She’s teaching fractions and division and percents!”

There’s always a lot more to teaching than the rest of us may think. And that’s why I asked Tiffany Choice to answer today’s Math at Work Monday questions.  Ms. Choice was my daughter’s 4th grade teacher, and she’s the best elementary math teacher I’ve ever met.  She truly made the math fun, and she really got into her lessons.  I know this for sure, because I had the pleasure of subbing for Ms. Choice while she was on maternity leave.  Let me tell you, those kids loved her — and so do I!

Last year, Ms. Choice moved to Fairfax County, Virginia.  She’s getting ready to start teaching 6th grade there.  In honor of what was supposed to be our first day of school — until Hurricane Irene changed our plans! — here’s how she uses math in her classroom.

Can you explain what you do for a living? I teach state-mandated curriculum to students. My job also includes communicating to parents progress and/or concerns, appropriately assessing my students, and analyzing data to drive my instruction and lessons.

When do you use basic math in your job?  I use math all the time — mostly basic addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. When I plan lessons, I need to appropriately plan for activities that will last a certain length of time. Then, when I am teaching the lessons, I am watching the clock and using timers to keep my lessons moving or calculating elapsed time.

I also use math to grade assignments and calculate grades. I break a student’s grade into 4 categories; participation, homework, classwork, test/projects. Each category has a different weight. Participation and homework are each 10 percent, while classwork and test/projects are each 40 percent. Then for each grading period, I average grades and take the appropriate percentage to get the overall grade.

I also use math to analyze data and drive my instruction. After quarter assessments or chapter tests are given, I look for trends. Which questions did the majority of students get incorrect? If I notice out of 60 students only 30% of them got a certain question correct this says to me that most of them (42 to be exact) got the question wrong. I need to figure out why and go back.

I will also use math to group my students for games and activities. When I originally plan for them I always assume all students will be present. However, with absences and such I have to use last-minute division to regroup them.  I move desks around into different groups periodically during the year, and that requires division as well.[pullquote]It’s completely normal to feel anxious or nervous about math. But a great teacher at any level (primary to college) will help you “get it.”  Just don’t give up.[/pullquote]

When I plan for field trips, I have to calculate the total cost for each student depending on the fees involved. Then, I have to count large amounts money that has been collected to account for the correct amounts.

Do you use any technology (like calculators or computers) to help with this math?  At my first teaching job, I had a computer program that calculated grades for me, but when I left and went to a new district I didn’t have that software, so I did grades all by hand using a calculator.

How do you think math helps you do your job better? The whole point of my job is to get students to learn and become great thinkers. I wouldn’t be able to find or focus on areas of weakness if I wasn’t able to properly analyze data and comprehend what it really means to me.

What kind of math did you take in high school?  Did you like it or feel like you were good at it? I only took algebra and geometry in high school. I was terrible at math in high school and didn’t enjoy it or “get it” until college. I started in a community college and I had to take two developmental math classes before I could take what was required. It was during those developmental courses I finally “got it” and began to actually enjoy it. Everything finally made sense.

It’s completely normal to feel anxious or nervous about math. But a great teacher at any level (primary to college) will help you “get it.”  Just don’t give up.

Did you have to learn new skills in order to do this math? The math I use to do my job is math that is taught up to the middle school level. I didn’t have to learn anything special.

Thanks so much, Ms. Choice!  (I don’t think I can ever call her Tiffany!)  If you have questions for Ms. Choice, just ask them in the comments section.  She has agreed to come back to Math for Grownups to talk a bit about how parents can work with their kids’ math teachers, so stay tuned for more advice from her.  

Parents: when it’s time for math homework, do you suddenly have something else to do? When it’s parent-teacher conference time, do you first tell the teacher that you’re no good at math yourself?

First off, you’re not alone. It’s the number one thing I hear from parents: “I don’t know how to help my kid with math!” So I asked one of my favorite math teachers, Tiffany Choice. As an elementary and middle school teacher, Ms. Choice is a math education expert. And because of that, we instantly connected. Oh, she was also my daughter’s fourth grade teacher.

I asked Ms. Choice to share her best advice for parents. Want to help your kid succeed at math? Here’s how.

Just because you struggled in math class doesn’t mean your kid will.

Don’t pass on your dislike or acceptance of not being “good at math.” Always highlight the importance of math. If you cannot provide math homework support, find someone who can. Even if your kid has to call an uncle across country to try help clarify a problem, it goes a long way.

Math is best understood when applied to the real world.

Show your kids how you use dollars and coins at the store. Encourage understanding when they use birthday money to buy things. Discourage them from throwing the wad of money on the counter without understanding what they are doing. Explain to your child what you are doing when balancing that checkbook, measuring a wall or following a recipe. You are your child’s first teacher.

How you were taught to do something in math may or may not be the best way.

Education is swiftly changing to keep up with technology and each generation. Be open to many new ways of learning math concepts. Ask your child’s teacher to show you how a concept is being presented. I’ve had parents stop in during math instruction or for an after school conference.

Math isn’t learned right after the first lesson.

Parents should emphasize and allot time for practice — just like we encourage practicing the piano, ballet, reading, soccer, or French.

Realize the importance of and reinforce math vocabulary.

Math isn’t just numbers, it’s words too. Talk about what 20% off really means when they’re asking for that new toy. Use the words “total,” “difference,” and even “mixed number.” Believe it or not, truly knowing what those math words mean helps in the long run. I hate to mention standardized tests, but it’s something that’s here to stay (at least for now). More and more, math tests are transforming into reading tests.  Most of the questions are word problems. Certain understanding of math vocabulary can and will help your child avoid the sneaky test-makers tricks.

I’ll add one more thing: Encourage your child to explain their reasoning behind the math they’re doing — whether you’re helping with homework or asking him to divy up candy pieces at a play date. One of the biggest things that kids are being asked to do is write about math. (In my daughter’s school, these are called BCRs or Brief Constructed Response and ECR or Extended Constructed Response.) The kids who already verbalize their understanding of math will have an easier time with these tasks.

Do you have advice for parents? Whether you’re a teacher, parent or innocent bystander share your ideas in the comments section. Have a question? Share that, too!