Thanks to Erol Ahmed @erol for making this photo available freely on Unsplash

Why you need math therapy.

Math is powerful.

In the past year, we have seen its power wielded to model COVID-19 cases, systemic racism and injustice, and make predictions about elections. Math has furthermore been used in the quest for environmental justice as countries and communities work to make informed decisions about what shifts need to be made to combat climate change. Math is a powerful tool for identifying and making sense of the biggest problems facing humanity today.

The power of math that we want to address here, however, is more internal than all of these examples. We want to discuss our mathematical identities — specifically, the ways that we feel about ourselves as mathematicians and how that situates us with a certain posture, position, and voice in society. We want to talk about how the mention of mathematics can paralyze individuals and how one small homework assignment can disrupt a family’s hope for a calm evening. And lastly, we want to talk about the journey out of these broken postures toward more Mathematical Wholeness.

Broken relationships with mathematics sound like a lot of different things. Perhaps you yourself have uttered one or more of these phrases:

  • “I’m just not a math person.”
  • “I wanted to be a doctor but then I failed algebra and I knew I needed to change career paths.”
  • “Pass the bill for the food to Amber, she knows math and can tell us how much we all owe.”
  • “I liked math all the way until I got a C in trigonometry and then I just knew I couldn’t do it anymore.”
  • “Oh you’re good at math? You must be super smart!”

As teachers of math in grades 6–12, my colleague Katerina Milvidskaia and I have listened to these phrases and hundreds more from our students throughout the years. This has given us a sense of urgency about the quest for Mathematical Wholeness needed for everyone.

Realizing the problem is bigger than students in our classrooms, we recently launched a project focused on providing “math therapy” to both adult and child clients. In this project, we seek to heal people’s relationship with math and give them power not only over their own confidence, but also in their ability to participate more fully in society and in the tackling of hard problems around them each day.

But why the brokenness? Why is math such a polarizing subject? In many places and from a young age, students are ranked and sorted according to standardized tests and told that they are good at some things (“above grade level”) or not good at other things (“far below grade level”). Many of the students this system has churned out are now adults, sitting at home with children and, among many other new and continued responsibilities, have been forced and expected to be math teachers overnight. Others are sitting at home watching the news, seeing graphs and data points while being expected to thoughtfully consume and critique statistical information coming at them at light-speed. Both of these roles are spaces where our math identities come into play and where the brokenness we may have experienced in the past come glaring to the surface.

How might we use the power of math for good in ourselves and in our community?

Being mathematical is defined on too narrow of a set of aptitudes. A frequently cited one is being speedy with number calculations. Do you get the right answer quickly? Can you add 166,790 and 245,420 in your head? About 93% of Americans indicate that they experience some level of math anxiety, often resulting from “painful experiences” in math classes. From our experiences with having people tell their math stories, these anxieties come from things like not finishing multiplication tests quickly when they were in elementary school or feeling like they need to have right answers quickly when teachers call on them. There is a lot of research that speaks to the detrimental affects of things like timed tests on students’ math identities. And a deeper look at the field reveals that many professional mathematicians spend months and even years on just one problem. We miss out on a lot when we rush. For example, professional mathematician Andrew Wiles worked on one problem for years. After he finished presenting it, an error was found in his proof. When he went back to the drawing board, he discovered a whole new branch of mathematics. Forcing students to speedily rush through lots of problems leads to both math anxiety and a fondness for math that is fraudulent. It unnecessarily limits the amount of people who are welcomed into the field, to the detriment of the creativity and beauty of the field overall.

Speaking of creativity and beauty, are those words you would use to describe mathematics? From our experience, m any people think that math is a cold and heartless subject where you either get the right answer or you don’t. The truth is, most math problems worth exploring have multiple ways to solve them, or have various answers that could be justified as correct. Math textbooks do nothing to debunk this myth with their largely closed questions and answers in the back. Math has been presented as a performance where you follow some predetermined rules and are celebrated when you get the right answer, whether you knew what you were doing or not. Think: When math comes to mind, how quickly does it flash to pages and pages of algebra problems, in which you used “FOIL” and “PEMDAS” and “cross-multiplied” for no apparent reason. Quick: Do you remember the quadratic equation? And while most people don’t remember a lot of what they learned in math class, they remember that there were many formulas to memorize and use correctly. The problem with this is that it completely misrepresents what mathematics is: an incredibly creative discipline.

Mathematical situations can always be understood in a variety of ways, and in fact, the more brains and ideas we can get thinking on a problem, the more likely we are to come to a more thoroughly researched and thought through solution. Learners in math classes and humans throughout the world asking clarifying, critical, or skeptical questions should be celebrated for being mathematical, rather than shamed for simply “not knowing” yet. In fact, many mathematical conventions were mutually agreed upon by mathematicians at the time, but, had other mathematicians been around, things might have gone differently. For example, PEMDAS (aka, the order in which we are to perform operations) is a convention. Similarly, 2+2=4, but only when speaking in the base 10 system. Math isn’t as cold and heartless as it is assumed to be and when we unlock its creativity (and invite creative folks into the space as a necessary part of the work!) everyone benefits.

A focus on speed and the omission of creativity is only part of the story of the math brokenness that many experience. One final problem is that math has frequently functioned as a discipline of exclusion. The mathematics we learn about in schools is incredibly Euro-centric. Textbooks are filled with theorems and ideas from European (mostly men) mathematicians, who postulated about the abstract. This stands in stark contrast to a more complete version of math history where we find the origins of Algebra in the Middle East in the person of Al-Khwarizmi . We also know that the Mayans were the first people group to make sense of the concept of zero and thus a sophisticated number system. A field of study called ethno-mathematics has recently been gaining traction and it describes mathematics as a human production situated within a cultural context. Other current mathematicians like John Urschel, a former NFL player who retired to pursue his PhD at MIT and Dr. Hannah Frye who uses math to study human behavior and relationships are also important names in the changing face of mathematics. Students, and all of us, need to see mathematicians who look like us so that we can create more inclusive mathematical spaces and harness the power of diverse perspectives. Mathematics is so much bigger than a narrow set of rules, and we will work to broaden our understanding of what mathematics is and who does it.

An understanding that math instruction and education is neutral will not work and has not worked. A belief that math can be “pulled out” and marched through quickly and without integration into the humanities, languages, sciences, and arts that are so integral to our lives will not work. What is evidence and “right answers” when they are simply studied as facts, steps, or memorized notes to hopefully allow a learner to pass a unit test? Do you remember that quadratic formula yet?

In conclusion, we believe that everyone deserves to have their mathematical brilliance recognized, pushed, and cultivated. We know that most people do not feel like mathematicians because their school experience reinforced deficit messaging that made them feel excluded from the world of mathematics. We must identify ways in which people’s identities were fractured in their school experience and work to repair this by doing math together, while simultaneously naming and reflecting on ways that we felt we were mathematical during our work together. We must instill mindset messages from neuroscience research that advocate for math being about reasoning and sense-making, not speed. We must share stories of famous mathematicians throughout history that reflect a diverse set of skills, experiences, cultures, perspectives, and backgrounds. We must put the power of mathematics in the hands of all citizens to tackle not only systemic racism, pandemics, elections, but our confidence in ourselves and our belief that asking and exploring tough questions is important and that Mathematical Wholeness is for everyone.

Originally published at http://docs.google.com.

Teacher, Coach, Storyteller, Connector, Math Therapist @sstrong57