Discussion prompt: "Why is it that in society if someone says 'Hey I can't do math, I am no good at it!' that many others respond by saying 'I know what you are talking about, I can't do it either!' and everyone laughs and cuts up BUT if someone says 'Hey I can't read or write, I am no good at it!' the whole room goes quiet, eyes shift to the floor and everyone walks away from that person like something was wrong with them."

Someone tell me his/her opinion why he/she thinks it is acceptable to be inept at one of the R's, but not the others in our society and how this might motivate you in attempting to learn mathematics.

Editor's Note: We'd love to hear opinions from English teachers who have struggled with math.

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I don't understand the knee-jerk reaction a lot of "math people" have when asked about this phenomenon. It isn't necessary or even possible for most people to learn relatively advanced math, and the response that studying math strengthens logical thinking is surely true but not terribly compelling; so does studying...

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I don't understand the knee-jerk reaction a lot of "math people" have when asked about this phenomenon. It isn't necessary or even possible for most people to learn relatively advanced math, and the response that studying math strengthens logical thinking is surely true but not terribly compelling; so does studying biology or history.

An example: it's often said that productive citizens need to know statistics, but what this means isn't clear to me. Of course everybody should know something about means, standard deviations, and, maybe most importantly, misuses of statistics, but is the average citizen supposed to subscribe to numerous expensive scientific journals and read the relevant articles--and conflicting ones--critically (trusting that the data is correct or even meaningful), and only then making an informed decision to support fracking or a war or rewrites to the tax code?

This is obviously impossible, and all the successful people who don't use and don't care to learn math don't convince me that it's the key to a good job and a happy life.

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Math and literacy require different abilities. People often seem to have a natural facility with one but not the other. Literacy, however, is a skill that is constantly reinforced for everyone by use, while math may be applied in daily life only infrequently. For example, a day's routine may involve interaction with cereal boxes, billboards and signs, texting, magazine picture captions, menus, coupon offers, and a good book. Daily math exercises may include glancing at the speedometer, figuring how much longer it will take to get to a location with a quick detour, and calculating a tip. Most of our math is done for us by machines and much of what remains to do can be done by rough estimation. So for those who struggle with literacy, need drives motivation and constant practice makes competence achievable; for those who struggle with math, calculators relieve them of the need, the motivation, and the practice.

When someone blithers over a simple math problem, such as splitting a bill for dinner with friends, then laughs and says "I can't do math" before the whole table reaches for their phones' easy tip calculator app, the general laughter is an admission that even simple math is hard. Math failure is embarrassing, but it is so common that it is easy to find a sympathetic crowd. When someone falters at reading, such as when called on to read a passage aloud in class or at a family seder, there is no graceful way to say "I can't read" in a room full of people who can.

In reality, given sufficient time and privacy, most people can work their way through basic math problems and passages from ordinary texts. Choking under pressure is common, but the response in either situation is often different. The diner with the bill has an easy solution at hand--his calculator, or he can pass it off to a friend who can do it faster. The reader must push through the passage, revealing deficits that may become more pronounced with mental blocking and flushing cheeks. Socially incompetent neighbors may snicker or show signs of impatience, while awkwardness fills the room. The diner and the reader are both exposed and embarrassed, but the diner can laugh away his situation because he is not alone. The reader merely passes through the ordeal--general laughter would be inappropriate and even cruel.

Though math is difficult for many people, it is a fact that the more highly skilled you choose to be in any walk of life, math ability will be a factor. Math is needed to read a thermometer, double a recipe, keep score, frame a house, understand your paycheck and where all the money went, build a business, invest for your future. If you can calculate amortization on a loan, you will be able to find the best mortgage when you buy your home. To get the most out of common office programs like Excel, you need to know what formulas do. The more math you understand and can put to use, the more doors are open to you in terms of careers. At the very least, being able to count back your change will keep you from being cheated, and being able to add the tip and split a dinner bill five ways will make you the designated check handler--a position of true respect.

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I will never forget reading that the success of a person in college was directly related to how well he/she did in Geometry. This was frightening to me because I struggled with this subject (Algebra was easy--inductive reasoning) until my older brother tutored me each night so I was able to make A s. Later, this statement about Geometry came back to haunt me when I had to take my first English class-Logic and Language. I needed to think more deductively!

Thanks to an education in a time when hurting people's feelings was done to shake people out of their ignorance, and also thanks to some hard life-lessons, I learned much about the importance of deductive thinking. Consequently, I have always told my students how important it is to really learn the concepts of math, how these concepts translate into logical thinking and how important logical thinking is in life. (e.g. When people vote using feelings as their guide, the results are devastating.)

It's not whether you can perform trigonometry, etc. The question is "Can you think logically? Can you reason?" Mathematics teaches students how better than other subjects. People need to rid themselves of the "stylish" thinking that because they have a computer or a calculator, math skills are unnecessary or superfluous. Every time people listen to someone and realize the logical fallacies, they should thank their math teachers. 

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I suspect some of this has to do with social acceptance of the different subjects.  Let's face it, math and science are still considered "nerdy" subjects (for lack of a better term) in modern US society, especially in relatively immature social circles that are often abundant in school settings.  In this way of thinking, if you are not good at math then that is OK because it just means that you aren't in touch with your inner nerd which of course is socially acceptable.  People in their formative years want to be seen as socially acceptable, so the behavior becomes the norm.

Reading (and writing), on the other hand, are a different matter.  While it is possible to live and survive at some meager level while being functionally illiterate, everyone realizes that in order to truly survive in modern society some level of basic literacy is required.  Those that are illiterate are seen as unable to function as required in modern society (hold a job, pay the bills, etc.), thus they are not accepted socially and shunned to some degree.  Besides, how could a person operate the now ubiquitous smartphone without being able to read!?

If we are to change US society's view of math and science, this basic social perception at the school age level is going to have to be overcome.

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When a person admits to being poor in math it is generally accepted, as one does not have to be good in math to be able to carry most tasks of everyday life. Being poor in math is not taken as something that would prevent a person from being able to add two numbers, count or perform similar basic tasks. A person does not need a thorough understanding of calculus or trigonometry to do things like paying for products bought at the grocery store or counting how many guests have arrived at a party to be able to bring the appropriate glasses of cool drink. For more involved tasks, the availability of calculators has made multiplication or division of large numbers just a matter of keying in some digits.

Being unable to read or write on the other hand is something that has severe implications on whether a person can lead a normal life. This is not something that would just prevent the person from understanding the works of Shakespeare or compose poetry, rather it makes living a normal life difficult for a person in today's world. An illiterate person has to constantly rely on others for basic tasks like reading an address, buying a specific product at the supermarket, ensuring tasks are performed on certain dates, among many others.

This could explain why being able to read and write is considered essential for survival while a lack of skill in math is not treated as a serious problem.

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I think that the reason for this is that the people who say they can’t do math are not saying that they are completely innumerate.  A person who can’t read or write is at a tremendous disadvantage in our world.  A person who cannot do algebra is not.

When people say that they cannot do math, they are not typically saying that they cannot do anything with numbers.  These people are still able to do basic addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division.  They are able to do the things that they need to do in order to function in daily life.  They can balance their checkbooks or determine who much it will cost them to go to the movies and buy a couple drinks and some popcorn.  When they say that they are bad at math, they typically mean that they cannot do higher math.

When someone says they can’t read and write, they don’t mean that they struggle with writing long essays or with reading Shakespeare.  Instead, they would mean (I think) that they cannot read street signs or get information from websites.  This is a fundamentally different problem.  A person who cannot read or write can barely function as an adult in our society.  In my view, this is why we would be horrified if someone said they have trouble with reading and writing, but not with math.  I think that a person who admitted they couldn’t add $20 and $15 correctly would get much the same treatment as someone who said they couldn’t read or write.

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It isn't acceptable.  For many, if you are considered inept at math, you will be cut out of a vast majority of jobs, not only right now but especially in the growing high-tech economy.  A sample situation:

A weekly laborer puts in his application into his company for a promotion, new position.  But, he doesn't even get considered for it because he dropped out of high school.  The reason why he dropped out of high school?  He couldn't learn math.

The reaction of laughing at a person inept at math has become an individual's way at their own lack of self-esteem.  They hear about someone worse off than they are, so they go ahead and laugh at them, when many of the people laughing are in the same or similar boat the victim is.

Now, as for learning math in this context, I can understand how it could motivate people to learn math; they don't want to be the victim.  As far as I am concerned, that is the wrong reason, though.  They should want to learn math to better themselves.  If they improve their education, etc., then they could possibly get that promotion they have been passed on in the past.

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