The feeling is familiar to those of us who have ever faced a daunting math test: Our brain, wanting to help us run away from the questions, tells our heart to beat faster. Yet, even as our pulse quickens and beads of sweat drip down our temples, the unsolved problems remain. There’s no running away from them.
Trying to articulate this feeling, I once told my high school teacher that math anxiety is “like being chased by a bunch of rabid dogs.”
But a class I took as a college sophomore transformed math from something that instills fear into something that brings clarity and even enjoyment.
For such a transformative class, it was unassumingly named “Seminar in Problem Solving Techniques.” We took on problems from the book “The Art and Craft of Problem Solving” by Paul Zeitz. It was quite different from the typical math textbook. Some of its exercises were recreational puzzles that involved imagining a chocolate bar progressively breaking into smaller pieces, or calculating the chance of finding a parking spot. Other problems were taken from competitions like the International Math Olympiad.
An ordinary person like me took days to answer some of these questions. I also felt intimidated by my classmates who had lightning-fast minds. Fortunately, our professor didn’t require speed. Instead, she encouraged us to lean into whatever difficulty we encountered and meticulously write down our thought processes—including those that led nowhere.
And a lot of my thinking did in fact lead nowhere. As I put it in my notes (on a geometry problem that took more than a week to solve), “many of the attempts were unfruitful.” But there were also moments of discovery: “After playing around with the drawing… I decided to create a table of values,” and that table finally led me to the solution. I gradually learned that the willingness to endure failed attempts and allow an element of play helped me find answers. One can methodically and calmly solve problems. It was a way of doing math that was utterly alien and refreshing to me.
Math anxiety still creeps in whenever I face a demanding problem. But, thanks to the class, it’s a little more manageable. The class opened my eyes to the fact that math isn’t a spectator sport; rather, it’s a craft that entails mental endurance and offers a deep kind of pleasure. Math was nerve-wracking for me because I took it personally when I made mistakes, muttering to myself, “If I don’t get this right then I’m stupid.” (Today, I still take it personally, but perhaps not as much as before.) Exams have inappropriately become de facto IQ tests where the goal is to “prove oneself” by getting high marks.
Imagine if math were taken for what it really is: a tool available to anyone who is willing to put in the effort and time, or a means to find a hidden yet pervading order in the world. Many of us would have probably been a little less scared of math and a little more inspired by it. More people would have probably dedicated themselves to solving tough problems in math and related fields like science, economics, and politics.
However, it’s one thing for a class to help someone acquire an appreciation for math, and it’s quite another for a whole society to foster that appreciation in enough people and produce great problem-solvers. The professor in my problem-solving class lamented that too few mathematicians and scientists from the Philippines gain global prominence; in contrast, many Philippine performing artists, especially singers, become famous worldwide.
The country has more world-famous singers than world-famous problem-solvers because training the latter is costlier and riskier. The returns on investing in a great singer are less uncertain than those on investing in a brilliant mathematician (who can often get stuck in a problem despite her skill). Since path-breaking research is often unprofitable at first and occasionally leads to dead ends, it’s difficult to find an entity—say, a government agency or corporation—willing to make risky investments.
I think mathematicians and researchers in general also need communities that give them room to experiment and make those costly (but honest) mistakes. Without such communities, a vicious cycle operates: Building a math or research career becomes less rewarding, fewer people decide to become professional problem-solvers, and the critical mass of communities conducive to intellectual pursuits fails to form.
It might take only a class to change a person’s opinion of math, but it takes a lot of resources and nurturing communities to produce more mathematicians.
Anthony G. Sabarillo, 29, is a teaching fellow at the University of the Philippines School of Economics.
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