Why America is failing math: lack of problem solving

October 22, 2008 — by Albert Gu

Numerous studies done over the past few years have shown that the United States is significantly lagging behind other countries in math throughout grades 7-12. The U.S. was ranked 24th out of 29 countries in a study of world’s wealthiest countries in of math literacy of 15-year-olds. How can it be that the richest country in the world, a society that places intense pressures on its children to be educated, is being overtaken by other countries in math?

The biggest problems hindering the quality of math education here are American culture and our education system. In American society, math is something that only the very top students and overachievers do. Students are less motivated to succeed mathematically because of the low respect it receives culturally. This common but incorrect perception is reflected in the way math is taught in elementary, middle and even high schools.

Math classes throughout middle and high school do not teach students how to apply deeper concepts. They mainly involve the memorization of techniques and formulas. Teachers are primarily concerned with performance on tests rather than with students’ mathematical development and creativity. As a result, difficult problems become foreign and unsolvable unless the teacher gives a direct solution for students to follow. This method of presenting detailed answers to students leads to a deficiency of problem solving-skills and creative thinking.

Classes that follow this format are not only uninteresting for students but also foster a strong dislike for math. Students who did not understand the material in the first place are unable to improve, and those who understand the material complain that the class is nothing but busywork. This dislike has caused a decline in student attempts to pursue math outside of school, lessening the chances for success in related fields.

This issue persists even at strongly academic institutions like Saratoga High. At first glance, we seem better off; students are accelerated many levels higher than the state and national requirements and still seem to understand the material. However, when students at Saratoga are challenged with a math problem that requires more logic than memorization, even many students who have advanced as far as calculus are often unsure of how to proceed.

Unfortunately, there is no easy way for Saratoga High, or even any other school, to solve these issues. In order to correct these flaws in the mathematical education, a change in the education system is necessary. Instead of addressing a problem rooted at the core of the education system by making only minimal changes, the United States should attempt to create new programs that help build deeper problem-solving abilities earlier.

One of these solutions is easy. In China, schools start kids in preparing for rigorous math competitions in kindergarten. Without going to such extremes, America can still encourage younger children to start learning math by including creative logic puzzles in the kindergarten and elementary school math curriculum. Similar to how starting musical instruments early helps children development better musical abilities, this will help students develop a stronger base of logic and creative problem-solving skills.

At math camps and extracurricular math classes I’ve gone to, classes are radically different from those taught at school. Instead of instructors rapidly covering many theorems and forcing students to memorize them, they encourage students to learn how to derive them. Problems are interesting and varied, and students actually enjoy trying to solve them instead of treating them as grueling work.

Middle and high school classes can follow this example and start including more creative problem-solving sessions rather than monotonous lectures and identical problems day after day. By engaging students more actively, educators will help students to think more positively about math. If the United States wants to begin churning out top students again, it needs to reform its education system. And that begins with math.

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