What is needed is a fundamental shift in how we view mathematics as a subject so we can rethink and realise how beneficial it is across the board. In addition, we need to make sure that no student gets left behind when foundational mathematics concepts are taught.


“Mathematics is the language in which God has written the universe.” ― Galileo Galilei

Research states that the way mathematics is taught in schools and how its conceptualised as a subject has severely impaired African children’s ability to learn and understand it.

From my experience I have found that most children have a fundamental misunderstanding of what maths is and what it can do. Once I break it down as a language, they begin to understand it better and see how relatable it is.

Majority of the mistakes of maths students come from spending lots of time memorising and dwelling upon solving problems fast. They miss large gaps in a subject that is focused upon on learning concepts, turn by turn.

It comes as no surprise to me that there are these large gaps. In a previous STEM bootcamp, our social innovation enterprise held last year, the majority of participating children could not determine the cost of carpeting when given its dimensions and price per square metre.

From our observation, a lot of our children are suffering from maths anxiety and it starts really early.

I have drawn some conclusions on the reasons for this anxiety, as it has to do with how maths is presented as a subject, how it’s taught, and what we expect from our children in Africa.

We need to change our collective view of maths. Immediately one mentions maths, the next the things that comes to the minds of many people is rote memorisation, impracticability, and the old slacker adage: “When am I ever going to need to use this?” The quadratic formula, sines, and cosines have gotten a bad rap and taken a verbal beating by an innumerable amount of high schoolers for probably more than a century.

The vast majority of people who haven’t had to use an equation since their senior year or cram session in college just don’t see the value in maths. That’s because they fundamentally misunderstand what mathematics is.

Neil deGrasse Tyson put it succinctly when he said, “Math is the language of the universe. So the more equations you know, the more you can converse with the cosmos.”

Now, that’s part of the equation, but not all of it. Maths, in a sense, is a way to speak and manipulate the world in a logic- and reason-based system, using a specialised written language. It is the language of numbers, quantity, and space, and it’s used in applications for engineering, physics, and so on. It’s doubtful that mathematics is presented this way to children or students at an early age. But that’s just one part of the problem with how we approach maths.

One major reason that mathematics is difficult to understand is because it is a network of prerequisites. Everything, all of the concepts, are chained in sequences of dependencies. If you miss an important concept earlier on — say, not being able to understand how to chart a simple algebraic equation on a line graph — you’ll have no idea how to go on…


Why it’s Easy To Fall behind In Maths

Professor Po-Shen Loh of Carnegie Mellon University believes that everyone is a maths person; all they lack is proper instruction. He went on to say that maths is a language that builds upon itself, and not understanding the foundations of maths is like not understanding the roots and structure of a language.

Essentially if a student doesn’t catch on in their first years of instruction, it’s going to be very difficult for them to reverse course and excel later on down the line. He believes it is essential to catch this early on and address it before a student’s issues with mathematics reach a point where they feel “they’re just not good at math.”

Professor Loh goes on to say that, “Mathematics is the principles of reasoning. There are ways to show you how these basic building blocks of reasoning can be used to deduce surprising and difficult things.”

One major reason that mathematics is difficult to understand is because it is a network of prerequisites. Everything, all of the concepts, are chained in sequences of dependencies. If you miss an important concept earlier on — say, not being able to understand how to chart a simple algebraic equation on a line graph — you’ll have no idea how to go on to charting even more complicated equations.

Loh goes on to say that this is much more prevalent in mathematics than history, for example. If you didn’t fully understand the War of 1812, it’s not going to impact on how you learn about the Civil War — aside from the occasional historical patterns you may or may not recognise, of course.

The way to address this is to provide a learning environment for everyone that moves at their own pace, to make sure to fill in the gaps, and to catch those lapses in understanding before they get out of control.

And if you’re already in too deep, say as a college grad or just an adult who wants to learn… well, it’s time to start from square one.

A Faulty Learning and Teaching Methodology

A few years back, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) dug a little deeper into how maths is taught. A 2012 assessment questioned how students approach the subject. Their responses were categorised in three learning styles: some students relied mostly on memorisation, others tried to relate new concepts to ones they’ve already learnt, and finally, some used a self-monitoring approach in which they evaluated their understanding and focused on concepts they were yet to learn.

Many potentially great minds have probably been turned off by the fast-paced timed tests and wonky teaching methods presented through the years. The language of maths needs to be presented in a way that shows how it connects to the world and demonstrates its great capacity for understanding and manipulating reality.


Without much of a surprise, it turned out that the memorisers were the least likely to achieve high scores and understanding. The United States ranked in the top three for this learning method. A more in-depth look showed that memorisers were about a half year behind students who used either relational or self-monitoring strategies.

Research has shown and most likely loads of anecdotal evidence show that most maths classrooms in the United States equate comprehension and skill with speed. Students who are the fastest on their time tables race against the clock to see how fast they can write down their memorised lines. This is not learning, this is not comprehension.

Studies show that stress interferes with the part of our brain we use to manipulate mathematical facts.

Studies have equally shown that children manipulate maths facts with their working memory – an area of the brain that will go offline when they experience stress.

Now put together 45-minute timed tests in a condensed school year or semester combined with maths anxiety, faulty instruction and expectations, poor learning methods, potential lapses in the fundamentals, and the problems start to pile up. As a result, the part of the brain responsible for mathematical thinking literally shuts off, and we start to see why Americans are so bad at maths.

Leading mathematician, Laurent Schwartz believed for many years that he was a slow thinker in maths and even believed that he was stupid. That was until he realised that, “What is important is to deeply understand things and their relations to each other. This is where intelligence lies. The fact of being quick or slow isn’t really relevant.”

Why New Methods of Teaching Math Aren’t Working

Many potentially great minds have probably been turned off by the fast-paced timed tests and wonky teaching methods presented through the years. The language of maths needs to be presented in a way that shows how it connects to the world and demonstrates its great capacity for understanding and manipulating reality.

If more people could tap into this infinite matrix of power, they’d be able to engage in the wondrous world of mathematics and unlock unknown potentials. It’s not for a lack of trying that we’ve failed; it comes down to instruction yet again.

What is needed is a fundamental shift in how we view mathematics as a subject so we can rethink and realise how beneficial it is across the board. In addition, we need to make sure that no student gets left behind when foundational mathematics concepts are taught.

Adetola Salau, Carismalife4U@gmail.com, an advocate of STEM education, public speaker, author, and social entrepreneur, is passionate about education reform.