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10/18/2006 - 7:35 p.m.

Mathematical Mysteries

Kat hates math. Kat says she is not good at math. Kat has no confidence in math. At one point, I was concerned that Kat might fail the second term of calculus in her senior year. So how did Kat do on the Calculus AB advanced placement exam? Extremely well, thank you very much.

How did this happen? Kat claims it is a mystery. Some of the high school staff thought it was senioritis. FogieKnight and I believed she was proving a point. But perhaps we all had it wrong. Perhaps she did so well precisely because she was so unhappy, lacked confidence, and hated math. When it comes to countries, a recent study by the Brookings Institute suggests nations whose students are the least happy and least confident math students may have the best math performance. On the 2003 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, an international test of fourth and eighth graders, the countries whose students enjoyed math the most all scored below average while the countries whose students least enjoyed math all excelled. Maybe Kat, who hates to run with the crowd, was simply part of a larger trend?

The question, of course, is why the trend. No one seems to be recommending that we make math students unhappy—although it apparently worked for Kat. The study author has suggested that pleasing kids has come at the expense of mastering skills. But it was not drill work that got Kat to where she ended up (which, to her delight, is at a college that does not require her to take a math test thanks to that good AP score.) If the teacher was assigning drill work, I assure you Kat was not handing it in.

The author also suggested that part of the answer may be that high expectations make for less confidence and enjoyment. High expectations may cause students to view their classmates as the high achievers. Well, Kat faced high expectations in her math career—even though her senior calculus class was not the top track because she had moved down a level to accommodate a science class in her junior year. But the rest of it was not really true. Kat had viewed those kids in that top track as high achievers but she did not have the same respect for the kids in her senior math class. No, her lack of confidence was more willful. It was almost in-your-face.

So what explains Kat's math results? Maybe the study is on to something. What explains Kat? Well, life has to retain some mysteries.

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