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Math Fears: Part 1

A recent study shows a math gap among U.S. students and students in other industrialized countries. Recent assessments show a slight improvement, but math educators say the gap is still too wide.

The report from the Program of International Student Assessment says U.S. students lag other industrialized countries in mathematics. While Sweden and Korea scored highest of twenty-nine countries included in the survey, the U.S. ranked 24th. The study measured the ability of fifteen year olds to solve real-life math problems.

Jim Cogdell, professor of mathematics at OSU, says math performance might be a result of people's low expectations. "People think it's normal not to be competent in math. They think if you're afraid of math, that's OK. But, it's not, there's no reason to be afraid of it, there's no reason to think it's OK to be afraid of it. That's like saying it's OK not to be able to read or write," he says. Cogdell says that basic math skills are a necessary part of everyday life.

Ravi Parikh and Priya Karve are two high school students attending the Ross Mathematics Program, a math camp at Ohio State University's main campus for the summer. They think they know why students in particular shy away from mathematics.

Parikh says, "I don't think I'm very interested in some of the math I learn in school cause it's tedious, cause a lot of it is just working repeated examples and learning formulas and not seeing where it all comes from and how it fits together."

Karve says, "I think that, basically, in high school there people a lot of time feel like there's no use for it because maybe they're not going to be mathematicians or engineers when they grow up."

OSU Education professor Donna Berlin says part of the problem lies with how math is taught. She says, "I've always felt that children start out loving mathematics, they like to count, they like to share, they like to line things up, and I think the way it's been presented in school - what's been the major problem - they've presented it something very static, something that's very rule bound, not connected to their real world, and so I think to a great extent that's what we've done in terms of the teaching of mathematics, rather than the subject itself."

Berlin says the result of this presentation of math as a rigid, disconnected subject sours people. Arthur White, also of the OSU College of Education, says this distaste leaks into culture through the media, which helps to fuel people's dislike.

He says, "But I think there are too many people in the world today who admit that they're not good at math, and they're kind of proud of it."

White and Berlin say that the progression of teaching math in a rigid way, and then seeing current attitudes reinforced in the media, perpetuates a cycle. People are taught on two fronts, in the classroom and in society, that math is to be avoided, and sometimes, feared.