Do We Need a Better Way to Teach Math?

Do We Need a Better Way to Teach Math?

How do you feel about mathematics? Have you ever found math to be fun or meaningful to your life? Are you ever confused, frustrated or intimidated by math?

How do you feel about the way your school teaches math? Is it engaging or motivating? Does it make sense to you? What do you think would be the best way to learn math and why?

In “Math Teachers Should Be More Like Football Coaches,” John Urschel, a Ph.D. candidate in mathematics and former professional football player, writes:

Growing up, I thought math class was something to be endured, not enjoyed. I disliked memorizing formulas and taking tests, all for the dull goal of getting a good grade. In elementary school, my mind wandered so much during class that I sometimes didn’t respond when I was called on, and I resisted using the rote techniques we were taught to use to solve problems. One of my teachers told my mother that I was “slow” and should repeat a grade.

But my problem wasn’t with math itself. In fact, I spent countless hours as a child doing logic and math puzzles on my own, and as a teenager, when a topic seemed particularly interesting, I would go to the library and read more about it.

By high school, none of my teachers questioned my mathematical talent, but none of them really encouraged it, either. No one told me that I could become a professional mathematician. And frankly, that was fine with me. I had no desire to spend my life doing exercises out of a textbook, which is what I assumed mathematicians did — if I even thought about what they did.

What I wanted to do was play college football. I was an offensive lineman. My hero was Jake Long, the starting left tackle for the University of Michigan who would later be selected first in the N.F.L. draft. My ambition was to get an athletic scholarship to attend a Big Ten school.

The chances of that happening were very low. In high school, I weighed “only” 220 pounds — about 80 pounds less than a big-time college tackle. I was an above-average athlete, but not a freak of nature. And my high school in Buffalo was an academic powerhouse, not a “feeder” school for college sports programs.

That didn’t stop me from dreaming, though. And it didn’t stop my coaches from encouraging me to believe I could reach my goal, and preparing and pushing me to work for it. When they told me I had potential but would have to work hard, I listened. I heard their voices in my ear when I dragged myself out of bed for predawn weight lifting sessions. They made videotapes of my performances and sent them to college coaches around the country. It didn’t matter that I didn’t initially attract much interest from the big schools. My coaches kept picking up the phone, and kept convincing me to try to prove myself.

In the end, a Big Ten school, Penn State, did offer me a scholarship. I was the 26th of 27 recruits. After college, I was even drafted by the Baltimore Ravens. I played for the Ravens from 2014 until my retirement in 2017.

Football coaches can be easy to caricature: all that intensity, all those pep talks, all those promises to build character. I certainly don’t romanticize them. I don’t believe that they make better young men, just better football players.

But I wish math teachers were more like football coaches.

Students, read the entire article, then tell us:

— Do you like math? Why or why not? How confident are you in the subject? Do you feel you are good at it?

— What have been your experiences of math in school? Are your math classes mostly about memorizing formulas and doing the laborious computations that Mr. Urschel experienced in his early schooling? Or, are they more like the creative problem-solving that he found in college and graduate school?

— Do you agree with Mr. Urschel that math teachers — or teachers in general — should be more like athletic coaches? Why or why not?

— Have you ever had a math teacher who motivated and inspired you the way Mr. Urschel’s football coaches did? If yes, tell us how.

— What role does math play in your day-to-day life? When and how do you use it? How important a skill is it to learn? Does the article persuade you that math can be fun and creative?

— What would you recommend to math teachers to better motivate, engage and inspire their students, particularly the ones who don’t already feel confident or successful at the subject?

Students 13 and older are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public.