Thursday, August 19, 2010

Sum up your life

The International Congress of Mathematicians is being held in Hyderabad. I wonder about the delegates. A hall full of brains. Would they all be nerds? The serious, bespectacled types? Or would they have a sense of humour? Just a thought. I have always regarded anyone good at the subject with awe and have the greatest respect for them. It is just that we never had fun loving math teachers at school.

Few have nice memories of their mathematics classes at school. Everyone complains about those who taught them the subject. The teachers are in general short on patience and subsequently rude and short-tempered. Always commenting on how useless the student is, and that there was no hope for them. No extra effort would be made by the teacher to explain the sum to the student. Maths teachers were also rather pompous. They took on the role of the unofficial principal. They would send for the parents at the slightest provocation. Give them a lecture about how useless their ward was and suggest that the parent send their child out for extra tuition classes. To make their job easier.

And I guess parents have a problem too. It did not matter if we ( read me) were never good at the subject, but we always secretly hope our child could score 100% in mathematics. My daughter ( the younger one), I thought was brilliant at the subject. At least till the 8th class. As long as the lazy teacher set the test paper with sums from the text book, she had no problem. This was lost on me initially. I had great hopes of sending her to IIT. Being endowed with a good memory, she knew the answers to each sum in the text book and would work toward getting that answer. But all that changed when the papers were set with sums that did not figure in the book. She heaved a sigh of relief when she did not have to deal with the subject anymore . The elder one after a lot of coaxing, did continue to take the subject well into her graduation. From where she made the switch to statistics.

Of late, I find many send their children to abacus classes. They say it helps. I remember in childhood, all of us at some time or the other had an elementary abacus at home. I think we all learnt basics of addition and subtraction from the equipment. The ones that the children use at the abacus classes now seem more complicated, with more rows of beads.

We still do a lot of mathematics in our head. All the multiplications, divisions, additions of the amount that needs to be given to the vegetable vendor, the dhobi, the maid. Mental mathematics is not given as much importance now as it used to be earlier. Thanks to our dependence on calculators. I remember the time, my father had gone to a store in the US. He bought a couple of items and went to the billing counter and handed the money to the lady at the counter,and told her how much she had to return. This was way before the more sophisticated billing machines appeared at the supermarkets. The lady took out her calculator, punched in the prices, and subtracted it from the money she had received . She saw the same amount that my father had told her. She looked up from the calculator and asked him – ‘You, mathematician?’ It amused him no end.

I wish we had better teachers. We have the best mathematical brains in our country. If we could make teaching positions more attractive in our own schools and universities and have teachers who could explain the subject with a little more patience in a logical sequence, we could have some Nobel Prize winners as well as some happy children and parents. It is also a pity, that those who teach the subject are not in touch with the industry. Most have no clue about the applied aspects of the subject.

I came across a series of articles that appeared in the NYT written by Steven Strogatz a professor of applied mathematics at Cornell Universitya. Like I said, I am not particularly good at the subject , but I read them for the sheer manner of presentation. He has such a lovely style of writing. And introduces humour in a subject that I thought was drab. The articles held my interest even though the mathematical portions were still were beyond me.If you have the time, go through them here.

While it is true that those who are duds at mathematics do well in life in other fields. It is also true that mathematics does teach you to think logically, whether you end up being a mathematician or not.  So how does one sum up?


  1. I think I am the only parent in the area where I live who doesn't send kids to abacus classes! Its so time consuming! How much math do you need in life??? I think in Engineering Mathematics you need more patience to complete iterations and integral calculations than applied mathematics. According to me, it was a sheer waste of time!

    P.S: I hate Mathematics and I love this post.

  2. I actually love mathematics and I did initially start out with abacus. Only my mom taught me, no classes. I don't understand what's so great about abacus still. Vedic mathematics is the right way to go. That makes everything easier.
    I'm in my final year of engg, I hate the whole mechanical branch. I joined due to parents pressure.
    Its bearable as there are lots of mathematical problems.
    The teaching is a major flaw in our education system. Not many have the knack to make a subject (any subject) interesting.
    Oh yeah, I loved my maths teacher in school, she was also the class teacher.
    She made every effort for everybody to understand the logic behind the problems.

    P.S: Your blog is nice, but not quite that appealing to me since I am not a parent yet. Still I will follow :)I like some of your earlier posts :)

  3. My previous boss who was 3 years younger to me was a math major. She is a very beautiful and brainy blond. She was a riot in any party.

    A small trivia. Do you know there is no Nobel price for math? why? Because Alfred Nobel's wife ran away with a math teacher. Hard to believe. But it is true.

  4. I am one of those people Radha. That are not only bad at Maths but FEAR the subject. As you say, it is attributed to the teacher I had in primary school. She was really fierce. And I flunked maths twice in a row. My father (my hero!) is a whiz at maths. He was very disappointed at this failure. And my fear of disappointing him directly led to fear of the subject. In high school we had a good teacher. But by then the damage had been done. I gladly dropped maths when I went on to plus two and never looked back.

    Thank God for computers and calculators!!

  5. Hit the nail on the head again, didn't you? Yes, math teachers are not always the genial kind but I remember my 11th standard teacher who was passionate about the subject. So was the professor in my college. And for ethical reason my high school math teacher did not take tuitions of students whom he taught in school.

    But I have to agree with you on one point. None of them ever inspired me to take up any particular subject. It was more determined by peer and parent pressure.

    Now that I have taken up studies again, I love how the professors lecture here. Most of them make the subject interesting and manage to bring the best out of students willing to learn.

    A side note to Girish re his PS: You don't have to be a parent to visit "Musings of a night owl". They are the musings and thoughts of a learned and experienced individual with a sense of humor to boot.

  6. Jyothi - Thank you.
    Some parents do think abacus classes are a great help. And yes, you do need a lot of patience initially for the subject and once you master it, speed is the key word, atleast in most competitive exams.
    Girish - interesting views, both on the subject as well as my posts :-).
    Guess once you are through with the course, you can switch to a career of your choice.
    SG:- you did dispel the myth about dumb blondes ( which is not fair at any rate!)
    And thanks for the trivia. Very interesting.
    Deepa- Thank god for computers. And in my case, my dad started off his career as a Chemistry lecturer and he used to be upset if I messed up a chemical equation.
    Jaya - When you go back to study after some years of work and experience, you view things in a different perspective. You even enjoy studying. And yes, the way a course is taught abroad is a lot different from what it is here.
    And thanks for the compliment. And Girish is entitled to his views.

  7. Great post, Radha! I think you're right- liking for any subject would depend on the teacher. I wish we had better maths teachers in our schools.

    I don't know much about Maths, but I did take a couple of years of Statistics in college, and though I got just average marks, I loved the subject. And yes, I think it did teach me to think a bit more logically.

    The articles by Steven Strogatz seem very interesting- I'll be sure to read them.

  8. Sorry you feel so strongly about maths teachers- I am a maths teacher myself. I love the subject and I think most of my students do too.

  9. Your analysis about the subject is superb! One of my sons, is good in maths and one is OK. The first one methodically did the sums in 'step by step' method. The younger one used to do short cut method and get some minus marks because the steps were not written properly! Which one is correct, I don't know!

    I think until a couple of years back, each and every household sent their children to Abacus classes. Now, it is slowing down, I think.

    Like all subjects, if the teacher is good, the children do well in the subjects.

  10. I could see myself in your younger daughter...
    Though I could solve all the problems from the text, I could never understand the others..
    But all this changed as I stepped into the eight std.. The maths teachers(most of them) in the higher secondary school were very friendly and approachable. Soon Maths became fun for me... It didnt take long before it became my favorite subject and i started understanding the concepts...
    This love I carried well into my graduation too!
    I thoroughly loved your post, keep writing:)

  11. With full offence meant to all the maths teachers , I think their knowledge gives them the licence to be supercilious and pompous with those who need their encouragement most . I remember ticking off 2 of my younger daughter's maths teachers who said it was pointless teaching her because she wasnt interested. I had to point out that perhaps this was the challenge to prove to herself that she was indeed worthy of the title "teacher".
    God how I hate Maths but I have full respect for Mrs Murthy who taught me in the 10th

  12. I agree on making Mathematics more fun while teaching! We have a flair for calculating complex Maths in our head!

  13. I too didn't send my kids for abacus classes. Great post on Maths and love SG's comment.

  14. I love basic maths, though I may not be very good at it. But somehow I never got my head around calculus and a lot of trigonometry, perhaps because the basic concepts were not explained very well, or my brain couldn't deal with them. I would really appreciate a teacher who could convey the magic and poetry of maths.

  15. Manju, Sandhya - A good teacher can make a lot of difference. And I do not think there are any shortcuts in Maths. It has to be done in the logical sequence.

    Lotusleaf - I am sure you are the kind of teacher I was writing about - the one who can make a difference. Unfortunately, the kind of teachers I have encountered, especially those teaching maths, were different. And do read those articles by Steven Strogatz.

    Arti, Nona - when a subject is fun, the learning is easier

    Eve's lungs - despite the hatred for the subject, you still remember Mrs Murthy fondly!

    Indrani - Thank you. SG's comment - :-)
    Dipali - Maths is interesting. There is no denying that!

  16. Ma, lovely post. When I get tired of working to earn a living I will start teaching Mathematics. Living in the fear of this subject practically ruins life at school!! Having a good Math teacher who can gauge your ability and treat you irrespective of whether you good or ok with the subject works wonders for a child.

    P.S: I hated the subjected and then began finding it interesting at the time of my 10th board exams thanks to a wonderful teacher:) hint hint!!

  17. I think the problem was that our mathematics teachers knew next to nothing of physics. If they did, then it might have been possible for them to teach the subject in the context of the physical world, helping us relate to the dynamics of laws, between the laws.

    As with calculus, without understanding the concept of rate of change applied to different situations, the integration and differentiation models remained alien.

    Throw in the fact that most of them are one-dimensional in their ability to process, and hence teach their wards.

  18. Serendipity - You will make a good maths teacher. Yes, and the teacher did learn and develop a healthy respect for the subject she dreaded in her school days
    Anil - Never looked at it that way! The comment adds so much to the post. Thank you.

  19. I was never good in Maths, however, I always wished I had the knack to be good at it. I always looked up to people who were good in the subject. Neither my teachers,or my parents ever had patience to teach me in a way that could be understood by me.
    There used to be very good teacher from whom I used to take tuitions for maths, and believe me he used to teach so well that I almost felt that I could master the subject.
    But alas, he had to leave and I was back to being the really dumb person in Maths.
    BTW, someone mentioned dumb blonde, well, did you know there are no natural blondes any more, they are all only box blondes. The real blondes are mostly from Sweden and such places and even they are vanishing. If you see a blonde see the color of her eyebrow it will be always dark brown/peanut brown, never fully blonde because , she is not real blonde.

  20. Math is needed in every sphere in life, and is a real fun subject if taught by good teachers.

  21. How come I missed this post? My family is full of math majors. I was good at it too. I suspect I enjoyed it only because I was good at it!

  22. Rama - interesting bit about the blondes. There is always hair colour!
    Samvedna - So true.
    Arundati - Am totally impressed!

  23. Interesting.
    I had noticed that most of our mathematics teachers were all Brahmins.It was an unwritten dictum.They used to be good at accounting, and would work at offices and stores,keeping accounts.Like art and music,is there something genetic in it? I have wondered.
    Have you read the book "Mathematicians are people too?" They are actually two books,written by Leutta and Wilber Weimer.I got them for my son some time back.Not actual mathematics books, and not about numbers.Some ideas about great mathematicians,might be interesting.


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