The Number Game

Dearth of quality teachers and teaching techniques are the core reasons for the Math phobia, Prachi Rege finds out.

Dearth of quality teachers and teaching techniques are the core reasons for the Math phobia, Prachi Rege finds out.

Math anxiety affects all of us at some time or the other, and it is still the most feared subject. In schools you hear “horror stories” of how students are trying to cope with the awful algebra and taxing trigonometry.

Students even sign up for courses, which have little to do with Math. Recently students in a Bachelor of Mass Media (BMM) class were asked why they had opted for the course. “Many replied that it was because BMM didn’t have Math in its curriculum,” says Azka Sheik, a second year BMM student at the National College, Bandra.

But you don’t require a “Math brain” to tackle the tricky problems. Mathematicians say that the fears are unfounded. They believe that with the right kind of training, even an average student can excel at the subject.

The problem lies with the kind of training one receives. "Most students study through their college and JEE exams with the focus on high scores rather than understanding the subject," says Sudhir Ghorpade, head, Department of Mathematics, IIT-B. This is perhaps why even at the elite Indian Institutes of Technology up to 10 per cent of first year B-Tech students fail in their Math exams.

India’s dismal performance in PISA, the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment in 2009 is a case in point. PISA evaluates the quality, equity and efficiency of school systems in some 70 countries. India secured the second last spot, Kyrgyzstan being the last on the list. Analysts attributed the Indian debacle to participants’ “lack of clarity about the concepts behind the questions asked at the test.”As a result of this, India could not participate in the competition last year.

Experts squarely blame the teachers for this sorry state of affairs. According to Padmabhushan awardee MS Raghunathan, head of National Centre for Mathematics (NCM), "Since the mathematical concepts are not clear to the teachers, they are not able to communicate well in class." Also system doesn’t allow students the freedom to question teachers. Devoid of classroom discussions, students don’t challenge what is taught on campus.

“Often classroom debates are not encouraged. Teachers should inspire confidence among students and allow their curiosity to flourish,” opines out Ghorpade.

NCM was set up in 2011 by IIT-B and Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) to provide additional training to college teachers, research scholars and post doctoral fellows through short-term training schools in various universities and research institutes across the country.

"One of the reasons of setting up the NCM was to hone the Math skills of the professors," says Jugal K Verma, professor, Department of Mathematics, IIT-B. In 2014 the NCM will organise about 30 training schools for college teachers and researchers. Until now 1000 of them have been trained through the two to three weeks` residential programmes and workshops held in various mathematics departments across the country.

According to Verma, Math textbooks are another problem. The Math syllabus is extensive and of a higher level as compared to countries like Germany and Japan. Besides, other countries package the syllabus in an attractive manner. Countries like Japan and Germany use cartoon characters and elaborate graphics to illustrate equations and explain them. “Though we have the best content our presentation lacks interactivity,” says Verma. "Math textbooks need visual appeal. It is a dry subject which needs to be made interesting to keep the students captivated," he adds.

It is not only the quality, but also the quantity of teachers that is responsible for the Math phobia. "At the moment we need at least 10 teachers in our department, but we are functioning with only two or three," says UG Dixit, head, Department of Statistics, University of Pune. Verma voices that Math department across IITs in the country have at least 20 vacancies each.
Dnyaneshwar Doke, vice principal, Dahanukar College believes that rural students fare far better in Math as compared to their city counterparts who are more concerned with scoring well in their exams. This is because rural schools focus on teaching the practical mathematical transactions, whereas in urban areas students are burdened with many other subjects. "There is no time to practice the equations, forget in depth understanding of concepts," explains Doke.

However, all is not lost in the country that boasts of mathematicians like Aryabhatta and Ramanujan, men who were instrumental in setting universally accepted mathematical concepts. With institutes like NCM training the teachers and independent math training institutes springing up, there is solution at both ends of the spectrum to cure the perennial Math phobia.


“Poor teaching leads to the inevitable idea that the subject (Mathematics) is only adapted to peculiar minds, when it is the one universal science, and the one whose ground rules are taught to us almost in infancy and reappear in the motions of the universe.”

- Henry John Stephen Smith, Mathematician


Multiplication is vexation,

Division is just as bad;

The Rule of Three perplexes me,

And Practice drives me mad.

– Old Rhyme

Aptitude for Math is inborn is a myth...

This belief is the most natural in the world. After all, some people just are more talented at some things (music and athletics come to mind) and to some degree it seems that these talents must be inborn. Indeed, as in any other field of human endeavour, Mathematics has had its share of prodigies. Karl Gauss helped his father with bookkeeping as a small child, and the Indian Mathematician Ramanujan discovered deep results in Mathematics with little formal training. It is easy for students to believe that doing Math requires special ability, one in particular which they have not got.

But consider: to generalise from “three spoons, three rocks, three flowers” – to the number “three” – is an extraordinary feat of abstraction, yet every one of us accomplished this when we were mere toddlers! Mathematics is indeed inborn, but it is inborn in all of us. It is a human trait, shared by the entire race. Reasoning with abstract ideas is the province of every child, every woman, and every man. Having a special genetic make-up is no more necessary for success in this activity than being Mozart is necessary to humming a tune.

Ask your Math teacher if s/he became a Mathematician in consequence of having a special brain. Almost certainly, it will turn out that a parent or teacher was responsible for helping him/ her discover the beauty in Math, and the rewards it holds for the student- and decidedly not a special brain.

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