Understanding maths – and other things.

Much has been said of how some people ‘cannot understand Maths’ and I believe there is often a deep seated and little understood reason why.

My first wife was a primary school teacher and she talked about the difficulties some children had with arithmetic and how it was recognised that as a child developed they developed by stages; that as they developed, their brains would mature, to the point where they were ready to accept different concepts. That they would for instance become able to begin to comprehend numbers, then addition and subtraction, later, multiplication and division, then progressing to long division, fractions, decimal places, and eventually algebra and geometry.

A very reasonable and reassuringly logical concept of the child’s development.

Yet a big potential problem immediately leaped out at me. All children develop and mature at different rates; so what if a child is introduced to a concept, to the next step , or even the first, before its brain has matured enough to grasp it?

How can they comprehend and learn something, their brain is not ready for? They couldn’t. They would find it incomprehensible; and what is more, Maths would for evermore be ‘something I just don’t understand’.

Having been unready for one step, every step after that would become increasingly confusing and impossible to understand; the fact that they ‘didn’t understand math’, or algebra or calculus or whatever would become an absolute fact that made them feel stupid and embarrassed ever after.

She, my first wife, had experienced that herself, but she had to address it,in order to qualify as a primary teacher. She went back to the very start and went through the whole learning process, step by step, again as an infant would – and sailed through it! All those awful mysterious and thoroughly confusing things that had been like another language, just fitted into place! Her brain had matured and developed so that it was able to understand those previously impossible concepts.

I wonder how many more people have had a similar experience, for we do hear of those that have overcome their fear of maths, who have learned how to use it, or sometimes just bits of it in later life. But how many of our children miss out, are thought to be ‘stupid’, or ‘retarded’ because they are not given the right stimulus at the right time.

I was very bright at school and was always one of the top pupils in my class, yet I too experienced times when I failed to grasp what was being taught. What is stamped deeply in my psyche is how I failed in subjects that were dear to me. I barely scraped a pass in History, one of my lifelong passions and dismally failed English Literature despite having always been an avid reader of books beyond my years, and having an interest in language and the written word to the extent that I am now a writer and a poet.

So what happened then, how come I was such a failure? Well it was because it doesn’t matter how much one learns, or how well one knows the mechanics of a subject if one is not taught how to answer the questions, if one does not know what the examiners are looking for.

I think our tendency to take what is said, too literally, can make learning more of a trial for us.


About TyroJack

For me the World is a logical place, in a Universe that works according to strict, straightforward and uncomplicated Laws. Physical Laws. Many of which we are aware of some of which we understand, some that we have working theories about, some we hypothesise about and some that are as yet pure guesswork. I believe in William of Ockham's principle, known as Occam's Razor: 'The fewer assumptions one makes, the more likely one is to be correct.' I like to apply this in life as well as science. I worked in various roles in IT for most of my working life which could be summed up as programming consultancy. Primarily I fixed problems from the most basic coding, to System design. I programmed systems that were bug-free. I am interested in everything and anything, but most of all in how things work.
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