Wednesday August 15, 2018

Love-Hate relationship with Math

LATER on, I would teach math in high school (I would also teach English, but that is another story).

I guess my love-hate relationship with math helped me in relating with my students’ difficulties. I spent a lot of time on the basics, often reviewing lessons supposedly mastered in elementary, which was often not the case, except for a handful of students. I remembered my own difficulties in high school and I knew that were it not for a lucky circumstance that unlocked my understanding, I would probably be in the same boat with them.

So my goal was always to make my students understand, never mind if I was behind the prescribed curriculum. I thought a lot of it was trash anyway, unnecessary and inapplicable for high school students. I mean, seriously, let’s be honest and realistic. Who uses logarithms or proves trigonometric identities in real life?

What use was it trying to teach them how to factor the difference of two squares when they could barely add or subtract fractions? How could I discuss the Pythagorean theorem and its applications when they did not even know the difference between a square root and a cube root?

After one of my exams, a student reported to me that their elementary teacher was the proctor and he looked at my exam and exclaimed, “Why is your exam like this? I already taught you these things before!” If he had said that to my face I would have replied, “Well, had you done a better job, I wouldn’t have had to reteach all this, would I?”

I also hated memorizing stuff. I just didn’t see the point. You don’t go around in real life with everything memorized. There’s no rule against looking up references. So I had a policy that all my quizzes and exams were open-notes and books. I didn’t think it was valid for students to fail just because they forgot some part of a formula. I wanted them to analyze and think for themselves, not spend precious time memorizing. Besides, even the great Albert Einstein was once said to have looked up his own phone number in the directory, saying, “I don’t unnecessarily fill my head with things that I can always look up.”

Of course, if you waited until the exam before you opened your notes and tried to figure things out, you weren’t likely to pass either because you wouldn’t have enough time, and I always reminded them of that.

I would skip lessons that (in my view) were too esoteric, saying, “Ah most of you won’t even get to touch this in college and more so in real life. Let’s just focus on mastering the basics.”

And yes, I get that question a lot. “Why do I need to study this? Will I really use all this algebra in my life?”

To which I reply, “Well, yes, I actually use algebra in my life.”

“For what?” they’ll ask.

“Well, to teach algebra,” I would reply with a wink.

Email me at View previous articles at