Surviving Math Class– Just Barely!

Well I made it, but I have been reduced to a tearful puddle. I feel tired and stressed. What happened? I just spent two days in a math class. I took it to keep up my elementary teaching credential. It was a worthwhile class with knowledgeable teachers, and everyone there was kind and friendly. We even spent much of the time playing games, then why am I so stressed?

I knew I was in trouble right at the beginning of the class. I was given a small piece of paper with a math problem on it. Mine was 1+1= . I felt confident I could handle this, that is until the teacher explained the “fun” game we were going to play to introduce ourselves. A person would read their problem and you were to tell about yourself if the answer to their problem matched the answer to your problem. I felt a rising sense of panic as I heard people reading double digit multiplication and square root problems. What did they say? What were the numbers? I needed more time to think it through. I needed to write it down and work it out, but there wasn’t time! I couldn’t “see” the problem. Everyone else was responding quickly and easily. What was I going to do! Fortunately, the problem I had to match was a very simple problem, and I was able to respond without embarrassment. If this was the teacher’s idea of “fun” then I was in trouble. From that moment I knew that this class certainly would not be geared to the needs and abilities of a visual-spatial person.

As the class began, the teacher stated the currently accepted teaching belief that children need to understand the mathematical reasoning for the procedure, then allowed to use their own method to arrive at the answer. I thought, “Wonderful!” The next moment they continued explaining that, of course, the child must be able to verbally explain how he arrived at his answer– that lets most intutives out! I was also informed that it was our duty as teachers to make sure that the math facts are drilled, “because children can’t proceed in higher math unless they have their math facts memorized”. I sat there thinking, “I have very few math facts memorized. I firmly believe this is why calculators were invented. I don’t even know all my times tables (I have tried!), but I went on to higher math.” I was also told that math teaches children how to think. I do appreciate the logic of math, and firmly believe that everyone needs to know how to do practical basic math, but I don’t think in a methodical sequenced manner and never will. All I ever end up with is a headache.

My feeling that this was definitely not a visual-spacial friendly class was confirmed during the next for minutes. As the class proceeded, I became more and more frustrated and confused. We were not given handouts, problems weren’t written on the board, and instructions were given orally. I couldn’t understand the instructions, or even remember what was said. I rarely knew what I was to do, and when I did, I still couldn’t remember the right sequence, so I got everything all wrong.

For instance, we were taken to the computer lab to see some internet math resources. The teacher used a large screen to show us what to do to get into the math program. It was nice to see what she did, but it didn’t help me much, because I was only able to see part of the screen from my seat, and, of course, I was expected to remain in my seat. It was also assumed that I could easily remember a sequence of details in my mind which I simply can’t do! By asking other people around me to show me what to do, I somehow managed to limp through the first day.

Though I felt tired at the beginning of the second day, I was determined to complete the course. I even felt some hope that the second day might be less stressful when the teacher announced that we would be playing some “fun” mathematical games. In one game I was given five cards each with a number written on it. By adding, subtracting, dividing, and/or multiplying, I was to arrive at another number on a card we turned over. I looked at the cards. They were just numbers. I could add or subtract and even multiply them to arrive at a new number, but somehow figuring out a series of mathematical computations which would make me end up at a predetermined number-- I knew wasn’t going to happen! They even expected me to do it in my head! All that was happening in my head was that it was starting to hurt! I just looked at the cards. Other members of my group tried to help me. They were patient, but after assisting me several times it became obvious that they expected me to improve and “catch on”. Were they thinking that I just wasn’t trying, or that I wasn’t even listening to their patient instructions? How could I tell them that my mind just goes blank when confronted by such a problem. I was trying– nothing was happening. I had no idea where to start or what to do. After these few minutes of “fun”, I began to feel nauseous, my stomach hurt, and my head ached.

I felt hopeful when they brought out the next game. These cards had brightly colored shapes on them. No numbers! We were to make matches. I thought, I can do that easily. I am very good with shapes and colors. I felt encouraged. Maybe at last here was something I could do. No! More cards were added to the deck and with them a multiplicity of rules. Once again more data I was to retain in my mind. My head began to swim. I could see matches, but they weren’t right because if they matched they weren’t a match– they needed to be different in each of four aspects to match, or all the same in each of the four characteristics! It seemed backward for me to try to think of a match that had to be different in each of the four qualities. Obviously, this wasn’t a game for a strong visual-spatial person. Most members of our group were able to retain a series of numerical details in their mind so they were doing very well at the game, while I constantly messed up trying to make matches which were not matches according to the complicated rules.

After that we did word problems. By this time I was glancing at the clock regularly. I was told that one painter could paint a house in three hours and another painter could paint a house in five hours. Our question was how long would it take the two of them to paint one house if they painted together. I thought, how should I know, and I really don’t care. (I was not feeling very happy by this point.) I just wanted to go home, but determined to complete the class, I attempted to visualize the problem. I began asking myself things like– that’s a ridiculous amount of time, no one could paint a house that quickly, three days might be more like it. Also, did these two painters agree to this, can they work together? How are they going to divide up the work. Will one of them do the trim work? That takes a long time. Were they doing the trim on those other houses they painted? Won’t they need some breaks? Does this include set-up and clean-up? I was informed that my real life questions weren’t relevant to the problem. I quit asking questions and even talking at all by this point-- all I wanted was to leave. I had fleeting thoughts that wouldn’t it be great if I could be sent to the principal. It would be far preferable to this humiliation. I didn’t even want to try any more.

After only two days where I tried to function in a way that was unnatural to me, I was exhausted. I had almost no opportunity to use my considerable abilities and had to exhibit my weaknesses in front of my peers. When I arrived home I was close to tears. I kept mumbling to myself that I really was a capable person, but I was beginning to wonder. I felt dumb and determined to never take another math class, ever!

If I feel this way, a person who is nearly sixty years old, who graduated with honors at a major university, who has a current teaching credential, who has tutored children very successfully for 36 years, raised four children, been an editor for 22 years, and had several articles published (note: none of these accomplishments are in math!), then how must a visual-spatial child feel?

My experience in this short math class, reminded me what a stressful experience school, especially math, can be for visual-spatial children who need to “see” to understand and learn. In a society where children are “taught” by listening to their teacher’s talking, those who learn through experience and visually, are often severely handicapped. On the plus side, some teachers use non-competitive games, humor, and manipulatives (real things to count etc), and real life problems to help children learn math. These are a great help to visual-spatial children, and their only hope on “getting through” math.

It is important to remember that visual-spatial people think and remember in pictures. They must translate these pictures into words and numbers. This takes time. They can quickly arrive at the whole picture, then work backward until they discover the answer. This is whole-to-parts or deductive reasoning, versus inductive or parts-to- whole reasoning which is predominately taught in schools. Visual-spatial people will not be able to remember sequences of details unless they can picture that sequence. This is very difficult for people who see a picture of things as a whole thing, instead of a sequence of parts.

Another thing to remember is that most people strive to remain where they feel competent and do well. Since most educators are predominately people who learn by listening to sequenced material, that is how they naturally teach. Though they attempt to help children learn though the use of visual-spatial materials (pictures, graphs, games, and objects to manipulate) they generally inadvertently change the activity from a visual activity back to an aural sequenced activity. This is where they feel comfortable and what is easy for them. For example, they may bury the meaning of a graph under a barrage of verbal explanations. The game I played which had obvious visual-spatial components of shape and color was altered to a game not of “seeing” matches, but of “memorizing and sequencing”. Thus the activity was now firmly entrenched in the comfort area of those who think inductively, effectively baring those with visual-spatial abilities from using their awesome abilities to make visual matches.

The teachers often mistakenly assume that all people will learn as they learn, and therefore their methodical, sequenced approach should help everyone learn, unless, of course, they are “slow”. Since they truly believe that they are adequately providing for various learning styles, most teachers assume that children who are not learning in their classroom either “aren’t trying”, or have some sort of “disability”. Unfortunately, being a visual-spatial learner is generally considered a “disability”. Since nearly everyone can learn if they are taught in the way they learn, the “disability” lies not in the child, but in the lack of appropriate learning experiences for those who learn visually and by experience.

In actuality, the visual-spatial abilities of creativity, long term visual memory, artistic, musical and athletic abilities, flexible thinking, and problem solving are all abilities which help adults live fulfilling lives. Since these abilities are becoming more and more crucial to enable us to survive in a fast changing world, it is becoming increasing important for us as parents and teachers to not only nurture our visual-spatial children, but to teach and encourage these abilities in all children.