The Pain Test

A lot of math students don’t like math. That’s a problem worth tackling. One point of The Pain Test is to question our assumptions. The assumption that many students don’t like math seems sound, but it’s worth asking “why?”

We could found a startup to tackle students’ dislike of math from any number of angles, and several would be valid. Students don’t like math because their teachers don’t know how to teach it clearly. Students don’t like math because they get bad grades in math, leading to all kinds of social stigmatization. Students don’t like math because their experience of math has been one of button-pushing and formula-memorization and not at all creative.

I’m pursuing the theory that students don’t like math class because math class seems divorced from the world they live in, with text-based problems describing (for instance) two trains leaving Philadelphia going in opposite directions.

To solve this problem, teachers rely on publishers to include problems in their curricula that are quote real world unquote, though as stipulated earlier, these problems don’t look like any real world a student has lived in. There are also various supplementary resources where teachers can find real world tasks they hope will engage their students.

Some of these supplementary resources are quite good. They offer interesting mathematical investigations of the world students live in. (I’ll discount most video games from this category, not because they aren’t effective, but because they’re effective at the drill and practice of existing skills. Less at the facilitation of new ones.) These resources are often content repositories, which you pay a monthly or yearly subscription fee to access, at which point you can download any learning materials created by the owners.

There are three problems with these sites.

  1. There aren’t enough of them. There is a wealth of adaptive assessment engines that will throw math problems at your students all day long but comparatively fewer places for teachers to purchase interesting math problems for use with their students.
  2. These problem banks are understocked. I won’t cite specific cases but the largest of these problem banks tops out at several dozen. Meanwhile, as a teacher, I don’t just want a lesson that interested the author’s students when she was a teacher. Her students were two years younger than mine and lived in Kansas. My students are two years older and like the beach. I want to pick from a broader selection of good problems so I can tailor them more specifically to my students’ interests.
  3. It takes time to learn to teach these lessons. In some cases, they come with teacher guides, true, but my working hypothesis is that every teacher has a threshold on the amount of time and effort she’ll invest in learning to teach a new lesson. Past that point, she’ll stick with whatever lesson she already had. It’s crucial, then, that the problem bank has a “house style” that’s easy to pick up on and extend to other tasks. As the teacher gets more experience teaching with that style, other problems will be easier to implement.

I’ll be surveying math educators about this shortly but check me out: is my assessment of the pain accurate?

2 thoughts on “The Pain Test

  1. I think those three points are definitely accurate, as they pretty much sum up the problems I’ve had with online resources. I think 3 is a good point. I know how to teach 3-Act Math now, but that came from binging on your blog over a summer, when I had time to work it out. Mathalicious lessons, on the other hand, I dismissed when I first saw because I didn’t want to take the time to figure them out. But seeing Karim talk about it this past summer helped with that too.

    And with both your sites, some of the best resources for interesting math, there’s not that much (yet). I mean, you keep making great stuff (and Stades as well), but there’s often not something I need, and I often see a lack of high school level stuff.

    Which makes me wonder, why do all these interesting math problems ad games focus on a middle school or elementary level?

  2. And with both your sites, some of the best resources for interesting math, there’s not that much (yet). I mean, you keep making great stuff (and Stades as well), but there’s often not something I need, and I often see a lack of high school level stuff.

    Thanks for your thoughts here, James. The current offerings don’t do justice to the breadth of mathematics out there. I hope that once we expand the authoring tools to everybody, we’ll start to see more interesting tasks at the lower elementary and upper high school levels.

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