The best way to make students hate math is to show its usefulness in accurate computation, then imply that this is its only purpose. Students have always assumed that the only skills you need in this discipline are memorization of rules and proper execution of them. This makes math so mechanical, so routine, and, as an effect, so uninteresting. There must be something about math that is more than computation – something more human.

I have been teaching General Math, Statistics, and Calculus for a year now, and one important lesson I’ve learned from this experience is the importance of math not as mere tool for accurate measurement but as a language and an art form. I believe that once math is recognized this way, it would be received differently by this country’s young minds.

Perhaps because of the evident dominance of numbers in math, it is hard for students to think of math as a language. But most math enthusiasts would agree with me if I describe math – beyond its being a tool for solving – as a tool for communication. It follows logical rules on how statements should be stated and how they should be understood, like how English imposes rules on how subjects should agree to verbs and how certain sentences should be interpreted. It is even more universal, more consistent, more logical than the English language. In whatever part of the world, for example, the set S={x|x∈N, x<6} will always solicit the same answer and will easily be understood because of its clarity. In one of my discussions among incoming Grade 11 students, it was interesting how one of them figured out a mathematical way – using symbols and notations – of saying “anyone under 18 not allowed”, and how some managed to represent jeepney fare schemes through piecewise-defined functions. Math, in effect, addresses the barrier between language differences by providing a means of communication that uses essentially the same rules across various cultures.

The recognition of math as a language, however, is as unapparent as its recognition as an art. In fact, if one asks a student what for them makes math an art, they will talk about geometry and shapes and visual patterns. Math, however, is akin to painting not because of the beautiful imagery geometry books provide, but because of the emotion it evokes and the thought process involved. Math interprets the world differently the way poems do. It is sensitive. In fact it requires one to observe nature very meticulously like how poets observe the rising and the setting of the sun, so that they begin to look at it in a unique manner. A surface, for example, is not just a surface for a mathematician, but a collection of infinitely many points. An ellipse is not just an ellipse and a circle is not just a circle – there exist relationships among their parts that can never be sensed by someone who lacks knowledge on conic sections. Mathematicians find creative and elegant means to solve a problem. That we can, for example, generate whatever shape (and exactly measure its area) by imagining rectangles getting infinitely smaller and smaller is something artful and imaginative.

The inability to introduce math as an art and a language makes students ask about its relevance in their daily lives. Undergraduate students oftentimes wonder why math should be part of their core subjects when they only want to pursue law school. Even some engineering students argue that they do not have to learn integrals in an extensive and difficult way because there are computational devices they can use in the first place. This happens, I believe, because some educators teach math as if it is a mechanical subject, like programming a robot. Again, this does not make math human.

The student’s usual question, “How can I use math in my day-to-day life and in my future work?” is, in itself, problematic, and teachers are oftentimes forced to give concrete answers and examples of situations in which mathematical concepts are “useful.” They end up giving pretentious and contrived answers like, “computing for your finances” or “solving the time you need to travel from your house to your school” which they themselves know are not at all true.

So, how can math be useful in real life and in one’s work? My usual respond is this: it is not. It is not evidently useful, but this does not mean you should stop learning it just as how you should not stop learning literature, arts, and philosophy despite their unapparent “application” in real life. The idea that everything we learn in school should have immediate application in the real life and in our future work is, for me, incorrect, for the real life itself is problematic. This simply implies acceptance to the current state of our humanity and asserts that education’s role is to adapt to it. But education should not help us adapt to the system, it should motivate us to challenge and change it.

What happens at present is we solve problems in Math not for the love of knowledge or out of our desire to discover new ideas but because we are forced to do so. This is not unlike the future of this country’s young minds: they will work not because it fulfills them but because it is what the system tells them to do in order to survive, as if it is human being’s only purpose. By making classrooms “imitate” the real world, we have, oftentimes unintendedly, imitated the oppression that has long been present in it. Math, then, becomes a way not to understand and discover the world but a way to oppress students by making them human calculators, mechanically doing things to be of service to a master. (davaotoday.com)

*Reil graduated from Ateneo de Davao University (AdDU) with the degree BS-Education in Mathematics. A former editor-in-chief of Atenews, the university’s official student publication, he now teaches mathematics to Grade 11 AdDU Senior High School students as he continues writing short fiction.*