Do you feel anxious when you hear ‘algebra’? Does a shiver run down your spine when you’re asked to find a percentage? Do you feel your whole world collapsing – reduced to a lesser being, when you hear the word ‘maths’? Or does a smile appear on your face? Memories of A+s and admiration by all? And perhaps…somewhere deep inside…do you worry that you’ll lose a part of your identity if someone ‘average’ solves that equation before you?
You are not alone! Too many of us are suffering from something Prof. Christopher Emdin, of Columbia University, calls Post Traumatic STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) Disorder. Also known as ‘math anxiety’, it’s a worldwide epidemic and has gripped the students of our nation particularly.
Think back to your own maths classroom. What was it like? Were some students called ‘geniuses’? Were others called ‘duffers’? Or did you ever hear ‘maths is not a field for girls’?
We are made to believe, from an early age, that it is nature that blesses us with a ‘math brain’. That some kids are ‘gifted’, while don’t have the ‘brains’. This kind of labelling is damaging our students. In fact, research shows that labels and stereotypes become self-fulfilling prophecies. If you’re struggling with maths and are called ‘dumb’, chances are this will be very demoralising. You will work less hard, stop taking interest and get frustrated because of internalising the idea that you’re not ‘smart’ enough.
This tragic cycle can be avoided by instead inculcating a ‘growth mindset’ – helping students believe that everyone can excel if they work hard.
All this is hardly scratching the surface of the complex web of problems that have led to Pakistan’s education emergency. But it is an example of why we need to rethink how to teach maths in our classrooms urgently.
But are we really even being taught maths at all?
Whether you’re enrolled in a public school in rural Thatta in Sindh or are studying O levels at an elite private school in Islamabad, chances are you are learning very little actual maths.
Maths is about the creativity of expression, problem-solving, and creating connections. In schools across the country, maths class is instead about sitting glued to your chair and solving long lists of problem sets by crunching numbers on your calculator using a formula. Devoid of purpose, students become disengaged. Maths class becomes like a labour camp at a prison.
But aren’t exercise drills important? Isn’t practice necessary for mastery?
Imagine how mundane an arts class would become if all you did were practice perfecting the steadiness of your hand. What torture a music class would be if there were no singing; only drills involving raising your voice to different pitches. On their own, devoid of reason or immediate purpose, do these exercise drills constitute learning art or music? Then why do we teach maths in our schools like this?
We ‘do’ art and music because they are a joy. There is freedom. There is creation. There is discovery. Maths is no different!
Maths classes need to become more authentic. Real mathematicians do not tackle problems with time limits. They deliberate intensely, addressing the issue from every angle. There is no rote learning; there is reasoning and discovery. There is imagination. The Muslims of the Islamic Golden Age delved deeply into symmetry, pattern and geometry because it was beautiful. Pythagoras devoted himself to discovering the mysteries of spheres because of his deep conviction that music and numbers connected the heavens. Advances in set theory and probability continue to occur because they hold the keys to unlocking the door to artificial intelligence. With real maths, the process itself is a joy. And often, it strongly impacts the world we live in.
We must bring that joy to our classrooms. Though small in scale at the moment, there are some very encouraging efforts made by educators, mathematicians, scientists and civil society organisations who are taking initiatives to not only popularise maths and science but also to challenge how they are taught in classrooms. One such example is the series of Math-a-thons being organised across the country by Pakistan Alliance for Maths and Science. In these events, university students come together with K-12 students to brainstorm and link maths and games for the classroom. These initiatives are helping re-envision maths education. Other such efforts worth mentioning are the maths and science melas, which are increasing in popularity and occurrence in areas as remote as Tharparkar; and they are working to inspire both students and educators.
It is time for the federal and provincial governments to follow suit, and work on a comprehensive revamping of their maths curricula, teacher training institutions and instruments to assess learning outcomes in the classroom (less rote-based exams, more authentic project-based learning).
Imagine a classroom where you learn circular geometry by playing a game of ‘bandr killa’. Imagine a classroom where students work together to create street art by applying their learning of proportion and symmetry. Imagine them helping each other to learn, being given academic credit for working hard, trying a creative approach to a problem, and researching how we measured the circumference of the Earth!
The mathematics that transformed the world began with imagination. Let us imagine, and work together to start tackling our national ‘Post Traumatic STEM Disorder’!
The writer is an educationist, social entrepreneur and CEO of Saving 9.