## I Want My Students To Struggle

Originally, it was a question on Quora that prompted this and got me thinking. The person asked if “math geniuses” struggled with math problems. Hmmm well first let’s answer that question.

Struggling is actually relative to the one solving the math problem. So, if you are asking if a math genius struggles with some of the problems that are difficult in basic classes up through calculus, then probably not. If, however, you are asking if such gifted individuals work through problems of their own without always knowing every step beforehand, then yes.

I provided the picture to exemplify my meaning here because it can be difficult to imagine problems that “geniuses” would find challenging, even for me with a math degree. While the first problem is hopefully easy for those reading through this, a student experiencing math for the first time can have a hard time putting together that one quantity plus another quantity gives a third quantity.

As a tutor and teacher, I have worked with students from the ground up, so to speak. It’s actually really cool watching little ones light up as they make connections and discover patterns. Getting there can be a struggle, though, and we all went through it at one point or another. In fact, the same struggle sticks with us all the way through our discovery and practice of mathematics.

There are problems out there that remain unsolved despite these brilliant mathematicians working together to arrive at a solution to benefit all of mankind. I would say that qualifies as a struggle since they haven’t been able to determine an adequate answer. But this is not a bad thing!

One of my personal education mentors asked me a question that has forever changed the way I approach math both as a student and teacher. Does struggling have to be a bad thing? While at first, of course I was opposed to ever having a student I was pouring myself into go through any distress in their attempts mostly due to the already negative association many people have with math, I came to understand that this is how individuals grow.

No matter how many times I explain a concept to someone, it will always seem easy when I do it because I already know how to perform the calculation or derivation. Until that person realizes for his or her self, they cannot repeat the process on a new problem. The struggle leads to discovery. Working through examples and then problems on their own helps foster both independence as well as appreciation for the effort needed to become a capable mathematician in their own right.

Granted, I don’t mean locking someone in a room and leaving them to their own devices. No, no. What I mean is a guided study that is equal parts help and discovery so that every student can feel that they understand the subject matter.

If you’re like me, then this revelation is one that does not come easy and can lead to a good deal of strife in terms of concern not only for your own progress but those you are responsible for. Hence, one of my favorite quotes from one of the greatest minds that has ever lived.

The famous math genius and physicist himself, Albert Einstein said not to let your struggles get you down because he was sure he had a much harder problem that he was trying to solve. Hard to get more authoritative than that!

Hopefully this not only answers your question but also serves as a springboard for any discouraged students looking toward the future for a little hope.

As always, thank you for letting me a part of your journey through math!

Kagan Love

## I’m Bad At Math

Yet another answer I felt relevant for my blog. It’s questions like this that abruptly ended my pursuit of math for myself and tossed me headfirst into the sea of education to help keep others from drowning in fear of the subject that I adore so.

There’s your answer, right there. Confidence is key!

Now, before you think I’m picking on you or doubting your assessment of yourself, please forgive the harsh opening. I want to let you know from the beginning that I believe in you and have no negative thoughts toward your intelligence whatsoever.

You yourself have said that your IQ is high, typically a great indicator of math ability especially! If I am to assume that you believe this, which I do, then the confidence you need is already a part of your personality, which is great news!

Unfortunately, I have seen time and time again students who lack the same attitude about their math skills. Fear not, you are definitely not alone. If you will allow, I would like to give you a few helpful tips in how to improve.

Confidence

No shocker there. In every initial assessment I’ve done with a student, either their parents lead with how their child doesn’t feel good at math or I will quickly discover that my new pupil is afraid to make a mistake.

That’s silly.

I made one small typo in an answer on here that had some 6,000 people read it. Was it embarassing? Perhaps a little. So what did I do with this situation? I pointed it out to every student I saw that day and online to my Facebook friends because I thought it was funny.

In all honesty, it is good that I made a mistake. Not necessarily for my ego, but for others to see that even though I literally do math more than I walk every day, I am not infallible. More than that, it wasn’t the end of the world. I still had numerous upvotes and support, so I corrected the typo and went about my day.

(And I can guarantee that I won’t make the same mistake again because now it has been cemented in my mind.)

I have no misconception about my math ability compared to others. My passion is in educating others, so there are definitely mathematicians out there and on here who are far more capable at computations, mind-boggling equations, and abstract proofs. But I continue on because I can see I’m making a difference every day in the students I teach.

You have an IQ, so the ability is there. Once you let go of the stress of making a mistake that might damage your intelligence (which it certainly won’t, or make others think less highly of your mind), I have no doubt you will begin to see improvements.

Practice

My favorite question for all of my students is this. Does knowing how to do a push-up make you stronger? No, of course not. Doing push-ups makes you stronger.

In order to get better at math, we must do it often. I said above that I do math more frequently than I walk every day. It’s true. I had some of my students in class help me do an experiment one day. The time I spent working through math problems with them and then tutoring in the evenings was almost quadruple the amount of time I spent walking.

Would you ever walk up to someone and say, “Wow, man, you are great at walking!” Probably not, because we all do it all the time. It’s more unusual when someone cannot walk well and typically has some underlying problem that prevents them from being able to do so.

Thus, when someone compliments my math abilities, I politely thank them and humbly offer that example as my reasoning. I am terrible at memorizing things, and know this about myself. So it was a lot of practice that got me to this math degree (thank you teacher who dared me to try to get one).

While I believe confidence may have the most to do with your struggles, you will still have a few years at least of practice in the wrong direction to rewire in your brain. All the time you spent thinking poorly of your math prowess set in your head to think a certain way when a problem came up. Now you will have to practice doubly hard to erase that time.

And don’t worry. In my experience, with a true attitude change, you will be surprised how quickly the fear dissolves away, and you realize just how intelligent you are.

Humility

Seriously, find someone you trust and ask them to help you while you are improving. This serves two important purposes.

1. Having someone who has an excellent understanding of mathematics there to guide you helps to feel like a team while initially overcoming your anxiety related to mathematics. They will be there to immediately help arrive at an answer when you get stuck. Over time, they should allow you to struggle more to develop independence until you feel confident enough to handle any problem on your own.
2. They are going to see your improvements before you are. This is why you need to trust your math guru. If you believe their words and know they come from a place of genuine caring, you will know there must be something to their telling you that you are getting better!

This takes humility as asking for help can be difficult, especially for someone intelligent. I’m sure that so many subjects must come naturally for you, so to have to ask for help may be a new experience. I assure you that no real teacher or tutor will ever think less of you or degrade you for it.

Even people who struggle have an issue asking for help because no one wants to feel dumb. Let me tell you now so that no one else can ever take it away from you: Asking for help is the key to success, especially in academics. It does not make you dumb. Anyone who thinks or says differently has not yet overcome their own anxiety about asking for help in the areas they are aware of in their own lives.

Conclusion

Perhaps I’m wrong and you feel confident and are sure that the problem lies elsewhere. I do believe, however, that with these tips, any one or combination of them, can help you see improvements. Again, I believe in you and know that your future is bright in every academic area.

Thank you for letting me be a part of your math journey!