We know our math scores aren’t competitive with other developed countries. We all know someone, or we may be someone, who dislikes math. But why does an interest in math matter? Yes, being competitive in the global arena is crucial for our nation’s advancement. Yes, taking a math course is required to graduate. But math helps individuals accomplish much more than an “A” on their exam.
On the most basic level, learning math promotes analytical thinking skills. Dr. Vinod Menon, professor of psychiatry and neurological sciences at Stanford University, has conducted research illustrating how one year of math instruction has significant impact on the brain’s approach to problem-solving as revealed through brain scans of second and third graders.1 As students move through math curricula from elementary to high school, they must learn to apply what they know to new ideas and different types of problems, building more complex thinking processes. Years of math where students work through steps, identify patterns, and apply complex thought processes hardwires the brain for deeper level thinking.
Beyond brain function, studying challenging math can promote perseverance and a mindset for rigor, which helps students far beyond the math classroom. Conquering math involving deeper and more complex thinking promotes a mental agility for problem-solving that can be called upon in a variety of arenas. And the willingness to work through challenging math helps students to develop the mindset to stay and wrestle with problems longer.
Students need math skills to think critically about finances. Stephen Meier, assistant professor at Columbia University, conducted a study indicating borrowers with poor math skills were two times more likely than others to experience home foreclosure.2 While he believed the results were no surprise, he hadn’t expected as great of a correlation between math abilities and foreclosure rates. The math skills necessary for sound investing are just as important for sound borrowing. Consider the “house of card” investments, ponzi schemes, hidden charges in investment portfolios, and other hard to assess situations people must wade through to make smart investment choices.
But for many students, learning to embrace challenge and build upon successes earned by overcoming difficult material, breeds confidence and an internal motivation stoked by knowing that with effort, achieving what was once believed too difficult, becomes a key ingredient for success. Overcoming the challenges that math often presents provides this experience.
Possessing math skills can open many possibilities for individuals, whether it leads to making more educated decisions in everyday life or leads to a career choice in a STEM field. How do you get students interested in math?
1“Adding it Up: Research Shows how early math lessons change children’s brain,” by Erin Digitale, http://med.stanford.edu/ism/2011/june/math.html
2“Study Says Math Deficiencies Increase Foreclosure Risk” by Bob Tedeschi, June 11, 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/13/realestate/12mort.html