Why do we not like maths?

Some do. I know that. But most don't. And for those of us who make up that 'most' - the answer seems obvious . . . maths is difficult . . . and, (we say) most of it is irrelevant - we never need it once we've left school . . . except . . . except . . . there are lots of things (difficult and irrelevant) which we a happily do (and with interest) long after we've left school; for the whole of our lives, indeed - so how can our resistance be explained . . . ?

I think, I think it's because there aren't enough boxes in maths. By a box, I mean a context which shows something is complete. And by a 'context', I don't mean a real life one or a useful one . . . but one which bestows the satisfying sensation of having seen something right through to its end. A bit like a crossword. A crossword is irrelevant and useless and doesn't contain all the words in the world - but we feel satisfied when we've filled in the answers . . . and if we don't get them all done today, we will let them simmer in and out of our minds until the last clue falls into place . . . and, if it doesn't, who cares? It's only a game. And because it's a game, we might come back and do another puzzle, another time. But maths . . . well, it seems open ended, far too open ended, it goes on and on for ever and we never seem to come to the end of any of it.

I was unwell for a couple of days in the last week and sat in bed trying to work out how to make three columns on a blog. Html is about as frightening as maths and the page went blizzy in front of my eyes. It simply merged into a blodge. I should have been resting, not sitting up trying to make three columns - but I couldn't stop, I simply couldn't stop until I'd got them.

And the experience was liberating. If I could spend a whole day making a page with three columns and extras when I had absolutely no need for them - and feel, not that I'd wasted my time, nor what an idiot I must be to take have taken so long - but pleased instead that I'd learnt something new - why couldn't I spend a day doing just one algebra question and go to bed happy knowing the hours had been used well? Or working out why a negative multiplied by a negative is a plus . . . . ?

My skin has broken out in a sweat.

I've gone cross eyed.

When the moment comes, when I set aside time to tackle negatives, I won't want anyone to see what I'm doing. Nor will I want them to tell me it's easy. Definitely I won't want that! Because it isn't. (Easy.) If I owe money then borrow twice as much more, then I'm three lots of money in debt, not suddenly and miraculously in credit. (Have you noticed the withering glances of mathematicians if you advance this objection? It's a terrible faux pas.) I managed to fail my maths G.C.S.E. four times - mainly because I was so frightened of numbers my vision went all wrong and I could see only a big, white, emptiness where the page should have been. If I concentrated, I could make the mists clear in little patches and catch glimpses of small groups of equations or triangles. It was like looking through a telescope. How can you pass an exam if you physically can't see the questions?

Sometimes, if I'm trying to work out how to do something on the computer, someone will come by and say 'Oh, you just press this, then this, then this, then . . . there, I've done it for you! See?' Am I pleased? NO! I'd rather spend HOURS trying to work it out for myself, I'd RATHER FAIL than have someone interfere and do it for me! So why don't I chose one difficult box - the multiplication of negatives (instant clammy skin) and work it out for myself? If I got three columns by using html, I reckon I should, given time, be able to multiply negatives and land up with positives.

I've even found a use for three columns. (This blog!)

Maybe I'll find a use for negative numbers.

(Sounds like spinning straw into gold to me.)

For more posts by Esther Montgomery, go to Esther's Boring Garden Blog.


Mo August 3, 2009 at 9:58 PM  

You had bad maths teachers thats why. I remember the excitement my early school teachers past on to me. I wanted to go home and read maths books for bedtime reading. I now see the world in numbers

3c August 4, 2009 at 8:11 AM  

Hello Mo.

On your blog, you say you are new to London but I'm not sure where you came to London from. Was your schooling in England or elsewhere? - because I think there are few inspiring maths teachers in this country. I'm not sure if it's their training, or the syllabus, or the kind of people who choose to teach maths . .

But it does sound as if you were VERY fortunate in yours.

Hildegarde August 4, 2009 at 1:14 PM  

Hi, I've been busy reading the introduction to the third column and exploring who is who. Good idea, can be fun to do this. Success and in fact even more important : enjoy !

3c August 4, 2009 at 4:14 PM  

Hello Hildegarde - thanks for visiting. I have come across your post only in the last few days and am very pleased to have done so. I very much like your photos.

J August 5, 2009 at 6:00 PM  

This post struck a chord - I was good at maths in primary school, but then spent two years being confused and shouted at at high school, before eventually getting a decent teacher for my gcse, when I actually started learning maths as opposed to sitting their befuddled. By this time though I was convinced that I was a complete idiot at maths and had no confidence at all. It was only last year, when I passed numerical tests for mathy graduate jobs that I realised that I'm not actually numerically remedial.

3c August 6, 2009 at 7:01 PM  

J - I find your comment enormously encouraging!