An amusing item from CNN:

Kids who are turned off by math often say they don’t enjoy it, they aren’t good at it and they see little point in it. Who knew that could be a formula for success?

The nations with the best scores have the least happy, least confident math students, says a study by the Brookings Institution’s Brown Center on Education Policy.

Countries reporting higher levels of enjoyment and confidence among math students don’t do as well in the subject, the study suggests. The results for the United States hover around the middle of the pack, both in terms of enjoyment and in test scores.

In essence, happiness is overrated, says study author Tom Loveless.

“We might want to focus on the math that kids are learning and just be a little less obsessed with the fact that they have to enjoy every minute of it,” said Loveless, who directs the Brown Center and serves on a presidential advisory panel on math.

The impression I have from the article is that it’s not confidence per se that leads to low math scores. It’s that high confidence among students tends to indicate an insufficiently difficult mathematics program. Students who perform well on standardized tests tend to be ones who went through difficult, rigorous, math programs. And constantly facing difficult math classes tends to lower their confidence.


  1. #1 Greco
    October 19, 2006

    In essence, happiness is overrated, says study author Tom Loveless.

    That sounds like the kind of thing a guy with that surname would say to himself.

  2. #2 Koray
    October 20, 2006

    That’s exactly the same impression I got from the article. You just have to love how it’s worded, though.

  3. #3 andy.s
    October 20, 2006

    You sucked me in with that title. I thought “Aha! Somebody must have proved that Math talent and being an anxious, stammering mumbling nerd are related.”

  4. #4 TheFallibleFiend
    October 20, 2006

    I tried to comment on this over at CV, but the software determined I must be a spammer. For some sufficiently unconstrained definition of the term, I suppose I am.

    There are numerous problems with american math education.

    I have 1 girl in MS and 1 in HS in fairfax county, va, a presumably good school district. I’ve tutored math and CS in nearby alexandria for maybe 10 years. In no particular order.

    1. The whole self-esteem farce.
    2. Thanks to Mortimer Adler, et al., we think every student has to have a broad education and our vocational programs have deteriorated in status. And so we have people going to community college to learn largely what they ought to have learned in HS and even in regular universities there are many sections of remedial courses. (This is largely ameliorated by a. the desire of employers to hire ‘certified’ people over degreed people in some cases, and b. the ability to take classes over the internet.)
    3. The widespread use of calculators. I *regularly* tutor kids who whip out these $100 calculars to multiply 2 numbers together … and don’t know how to do it AND haven’t the good sense to know that 3 times -10 cannot yield 100 (real example).
    4. The silly textbooks that have to “reach everybody” … but the kids who use these different learning styles don’t read the damned book anyway.
    5. Psychologists and educationists foisting their sociopolitical and personal agendas onto the school system under the guise of science. NCTM’s Principles and Practices is a prime example of this.
    5. Many math teachers know only BARELY more math than what they are teaching. They have no context for what they are teaching.
    6. Many math (and other) teachers go straight into teaching before they have any experience outside – once again, they have no sense of the context for what they’re teaching. (I’ve started a teacher intern program where I work to hire a HS teacher over the summer to give them the chance to give teachers experience solving real problems related to their fields.)
    7. We use scattershot approach. Throw out 10 subjects in math in K. Not deep in any, very superficial. Grade 1, review, go a little farther, never deep.
    8. I can’t over-emphasize #5 and #7, so I’ll state it again. Teachers read about some “study” that says X *MAY BE* or *CAN BE* effective – like “computers CAN BE good in a classroom” or “calculators CAN improve math education” and by the time teachers start practicing it, that hedged verbiage gets translated to being “the most modern, effective method of teaching math.” They need to have SERIOUS *OUTSIDE* review of many of the “studies” that have been down over the last 20 years. Perfect example of the kind of nonsense is the socio-political manifesto known as the NCTM Principle’s and Practices. They offer hypothetical Q&A … for most Q’s of the form “Why don’t you do X.” Their stock response is “There’s no data to support that.” But their BIG case is not to teach advanced math to kids in HS AND to continue with the blunderbuss approach to teaching math (i.e. lost of different things with no depth). All of the countries who do better than us in math teach one thing, teach it very well, and then build on it. in their hypothetical Q&A, when the NCTM is “asked” “Why don’t we teach math more thoroughly LIKE EVERYONE ELSE” their response is “There’s no data to conclude our method doesn’t work” (or something to that effect). I *considered* actually responding to them, but thought they would probably ignore me. When I saw later the responses to the hypothetical responses, I knew I had made a good decision – these boneheads had already made up their minds and they were just “soliciting comments” to make it look like they cared…which brings up
    9. The box-checker mentality. “Well, I brought THAT up, so I can mark it off!”

    What rubbish. I could go on.

  5. #5 Tommy Paquette
    October 20, 2006

    Math has always seemed difficult and rigorous to me because it is taught inconsistently, with a sneering and condencending tone (statements in college by techers that I ought to have learned such-and-such form of math whilst in the second grade)
    and the utter ugliness and sterility of math textbooks. Professional mathematicians understand the real-world applications and relevancy of the math they teach, but they rarely if ever teach to that releveancy. Time and again a new chapter on mathematics begins thus: Picture of people doing things. A 1 paragraph blurb of how the new type of math to be henceforth learned is in some way similar or sometimes applicable to the picture. A dense and unhelpful description of how to perform the new type of math in typically too-easy situations. Then we proceed to the meat of the chapter, where we see all sorts of sick mutations of these new mathematical principals, put out on gruesome display on the page, without any well written, thoughtful examples of how to go about defeating such twisted numerical evil. Then – and this is what reall kills me – at the end of the chapter there are 2 or 3 review questions that actually frame the mathematics in (GASP) a real world situation!!! Once presented in this form, it is far easier to learn and understand the math which goes into it. Unfortunatley these are not exhaustive in thier scope, and routinley do not cover the more twisted and arcane mathematics previously presented in the chapter. The real world makes sense, so for math to make sense why does it not teach it more often in a way that will actually help people to remember it? *cries*

  6. #6 Michele
    October 20, 2006

    The way math is taught makes a big difference. I have a friend who teaches math in middle school. She relates math to real life situations and finds the kids are much more eager to learn and actually learn better (she gets kids who can’t add single digits). She also finds using a reward system also helps.

    My niece and nephew (13 & 16) have said countless times over the years, “I hate math. I don’t know why I have to learn this. I’m never going to use it.” The challenge has always been to relate math to real life so they could see the value of what they are being taught.

    I never did well in math until college. I finally had a teacher who could make learning interesting and who taught in such a way that I understood and retained what I learned.

  7. #7 Jason Rosenhouse
    October 20, 2006

    Sadly, I have to agree with nearly all the criticisms of math education that have been levelled by the previous commenters. One small disagreement, however, concerns the importance of making math relevant to day to day life. I’m certainly not opposed to using real-world examples in math classes, and there are a lot of topics that should be introduced in that way. (In other words, start with the real-world problem and then determine what sort of mathematics you need to solve the problem). But a major part of mathematics is abstract reasoning. The ability to develop a logical argument that takes you from given information to a desired conclusion is itself a valuable skill. We shouldn’t become so obsessed with practical applications that we short change this aspect of the subject.

    Most students find abstract reasoning difficult, and this is why they end up not liking math. But that’s all the more reason they need to be forced to do it in school!

  8. #8 TheFallibleFiend
    October 20, 2006

    “But a major part of mathematics is abstract reasoning.”


    I’m starting my own blog at
    so I can rant about this kind of annoying nonsense without cluttering up everyone else’s inboxes. But “DEAR GOD,” that’s it. When I was very young, I was a victim of the “new math.” I just didn’t get it. My understanding is that the “new math” was developed by college profs as an attempt to get students to develop a level of abstraction that many of them (like me) were not able to comprehend. If that’s true, it was misguided. But the response has been equally misguided. Over the years, the business of teaching K12 mathematics education seems to have been shanghaied by the guys who were crappy at it. Maybe this is what them philosopher types mean when they talk about dialectic – you know every idea generating its own antithesis, etc.

    Another exampla non gratia. Back in the day there was a LOT of memorization and a LOT of drill. Today, teachers call this DRILL and KILL. Rote is bad. Period. Such a dumbass response to the issue, but, hey, that’s the antithesis. I’m not opposed to things like games in the classroom – that’s good stuff (to the extent it’s well thought out and actually works). I’m not opposed to other creative attempts to suck students into a subject. But some things HAVE TO BE MEMORIZED. It’s ludicrous that we have a substantial number of kids entering (and some graduating) high school who are not fluent with their “basic math facts” (what we fogeys call “addition and multiplication tables”).

    Also, the problem of memorization was exaggerated. Some kids frequently memorized things they didn’t have to. I recall in HS calculus there were guys who stayed up for hours studying for a test. I was a pretty curious about what took them so long, but I wasn’t sure how to ask without sounding condescending. But eventually it comes out that they had been trying to memorize all the formulas. A strong symptom that you’re not getting calculus is that you are reduced to memorizing formulae. I get the unshakeable feeling that the guys who are designing todays math curricula are the ones who were memorizing formulas in calculus the day before the test.

    I better save something for my own blog. Boogers.

  9. #9 Tyler DiPietro
    October 22, 2006

    It’s kind of funny to see people say that the lack of real world applications turned them off from math. To me it was the level of abstraction that made me fall in love with math. I just love sitting around, having fun with my little contrived syntax that doesn’t have anything to do with the real world. I hate the world, the world sucks. Imagination is better.

  10. #10 Richard Simons
    October 23, 2006

    Several people have commented on the lack of real-life examples turning them away from math. I have been teaching pre-university / first year math to (mainly) education students and virtually all of them complain when I give them word problems, especially ones that are more realistic. They find it extremely difficult to translate even the most basic into algebra (or to find other ways to tackle the problem). I’ve tried various approaches (and I encourage students to help one another) but it is very frustrating as I am unable to see what could possibly cause a problem (Father’s current age – write down a symbol to represent it, say ‘f’. Is equal to – write down equals sign. Four times daughter’s age – write down ‘4’ and x followed by a symbol for daughter’s age, say ‘d’. etc.) Typically at least a quarter of the class are unable to do even that after we’ve worked through various other word problems.

    Whenever a new topic is introduced, I try to explain why it might be of interest to people and why the concept was developed in the first place, putting it into some sort of historical context. Surprisingly, one of the texts I’ve used has ‘precalculus’ in the title but nowhere does it explain what calculus is or what it is used for.

    I think that frequently people who are weak in math think that someone who is good can just look at a problem and the solution, or at least the best method, just pops into their head. I stress that this isn’t always so, that they might have several false starts, and give the example of one of my lecturers who spent 6 months on a simply-stated problem. Also, some of the concepts they are covering eluded mathematicians for 1000 years, so they shouldn’t feel too bad if it takes them more than 20 minutes to grasp it. (confidence seems to be a major factor in math ability).

  11. #11 John Doyle
    October 27, 2006

    We’re Americans in France, and our daughter attends a French public school. Though French data weren’t included in the study you cited, I suspect the results would fall somewhere around the Dutch-British numbers: low on enthusiasm and confidence, pretty high on achievement. French teachers often announce test results to the class, thereby exposing the “losers” to public humiliation. There is no noticeable grade inflation: the average score is a C. There are no accelerated classes for high aptitude/performance kids: this the land of equality — everybody sucks. Curiously, in our daughter’s 8th-grade math class the two top students out of thirty are the only two Americans (and both girls!). Our daughter finds the system sort of amusing, like learning the rules to a new game. So I suspect our American “blooming flowers” could probably survive a little harsh pruning.

  12. #12 Odile
    April 15, 2007

    I agree with reasons listed above. #5 of Fiend 5: Many math teachers know only BARELY more math than what they are teaching. They have no context for what they are teaching. is the reason I hear my children complain about. The differences between teachers in explaining are big. I now think we need to have a best teachers route in every school. The best children get the most difficult explanation. This is achieved by ensuring that in every age cathegory one teacher is available that can give the difficult explanation. I’m not sure if it is a workable idea.

  13. #13 banka ?ubeleri
    December 9, 2008

    Democrats are suggesting that this is yet more unconstitutional gobbledeegook from the president

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