But Math Is HARD

Slamming on the brakes

Forgive me in advance for the not-so-touchy-feely words regarding our beloved Mother Goose, but this one gave me pause…

multiplication is vexation2My two-year-old daughter pulled out The Real Mother Goose yesterday as we were playing.  I knew we had the book.  It was a gift at some point in the last couple of years.  However, it has never been one of my favorites.  I guess I’m a prude, and for that I’m sorry, but these sing-songy bits of goofiness never did excite me.  But hey-  what my daughter wants to read… we read.  So we read.  Actually- even at two, she can spot-read (identify?) many of the words on the page already.  So we laid in her comfy bed reading verse by verse and studying the accompanying artwork.  Until I spied one in particular queued up across the page.

We didn’t read this one.

The Real Mother Goose

Now you can go on and on in the comments section about the historical significance of this work from 1916.  It certainly does give an interesting glimpse of society at the time it first went to print.  Jack Sprat, Little Boy Blue, London Bridge… I get it.  I also appreciate the fact that these descend from verbal tradition and seem a bit weird on the printed page.  I know.

But I have a pretty bright little turd here, and as of my current state of mind, we’re not about to sing songs of the difficulty of mathematics in my house.  I almost hope someone will reply with just cause for not fretting over such a silly verse.  I mean… she’s just two, right?

What will two years of failure do?

I was educated in the very public schools in which I now teach.  I stayed pretty close to home.  I was fortunate enough to be served by our gifted education program from elementary school on, when it was just out of the box and brand-spanking-new.  I am proud of the experiences I had in our district from early to late.  In fact, I was also in advanced mathematics in grade seven with Ms. Melody Boring (a known expert) and I learned a ton.  However, I also have some baggage from later years that speaks to the power of having two bad experiences…  two years in a row.

I don’t really feel like the usual research links here tonight that show how two neglected years can really sink a kid.  It is in my head that this has been shown.  I’m hoping someone will do that for me in the spaces below.  But-  I have a case study that says it is so.

Me, a bright kid sitting in the back of the room as a sophomore reading In-Fisherman and Sports Afield while my teacher sat in his desk chair tying flies.  Yes, you read it correctly… tying flies.  Tying flies in a full-on fly-tying vice clamped to his desk.  Tying flies, painting the lead heads of crappie jigs for the weekend’s fishing expedition.  (Now that’s a “workshop model” of instruction if I’ve ever heard of one.)  Heck, I liked the guy.  I mean, really… what high school boy wouldn’t?  It was pretty routine.  He’d scribble on the board for ten or fifteen minutes…  give an assignment…  and then get to work on his sportsmanlike artistry.  If we needed a brownie point or two, we’d approach his desk and ask something like: “what color have the crappie been biting on this week?”  … and we’d be “in.”

Lure 3

The next year I was lucky enough to score a good teacher.  He was a kind and gentle man, and one who knew a bit about mathematics instruction.  I was playing catch-up, but a bright kid can do just that.  Just a few months in, my teacher (the father of a current colleague) passed due to cancer and I was once again thrust into a tailspin.  You can’t play catch up in advanced mathematics with a sub who reads the paper.

My senior year began anew with the trigonometry experience.  Really-  this was all quite interesting to me from a science perspective.  I instantly got the conceptual ties to physics.  Apparently, these conceptual ties weren’t solid enough as I ultimately scored a 6% on one exam, nailed the only D in my life…  and pulled out of calculus for the second semester.  This teacher?…….  he was not rehired the following school year.  Years later, my principal would show me the actual three-ring binder of documentation it took to pull this teacher’s roots from the public school system.  Bad seeds in a good system.  But the collateral damage of that mess is writing this blog.  You should see the disparity in my ACT scores.

So perhaps I can thank all of this mess for pointing me in a rather literary direction.  I remember even as far back as middle school, taking tests in Odyssey (gifted ed.) that always showed me to be “left-brain dominant.”  That didn’t last long.  From college on, the right side has done nearly all of the “talking” for me.  That is probably rather obvious to anyone reading this blog over time.

A naked nerve

So, ultimately I apologize for defiling The Mother’s good name in kiddie lit (if she indeed has one).  What I do not apologize for are some of the attitudes I have taken with me into the classroom for the past eighteen years.  The idea that every kid matters.  The idea that everyone deserves to grow, regardless of the skills they bring into your room in September.  The idea that smart kids, perhaps most of all, deserve to be challenged, pushed and empowered every bit as much as any other kid.

My daughter stands to be a pretty brilliant little human some day.  I’m not reading her stories of the vexation of multiplication.  I’m just not going to do it.  In fact, I’ll be damned if anyone does.

Sorry Mother Goose, you caught me at a bad time.


*”Multiplication is Vexation” from Mother Goose, 1916
*Lure 3 by mmahaffie on Flickr

Sean Nash

Biology teacher in the great state of Kansas. Back at it in the classroom after a 30-year career in Missouri. Former District Curriculum Administrator, Instructional Technology Coordinator, and Instructional Coach. Biology instructor since 1993. Find more about my passions and my work at http://nashworld.me


  1. Okay, you touched a nerve with me. Especially here,

    “The idea that every kid matters. The idea that everyone deserves to grow, regardless of the skills they bring into your room in September. The idea that smart kids, perhaps most of all, deserve to be challenged, pushed and empowered every bit as much as any other kid.”

    As an administrator who works day in and day out to see that statement come to fulfillment in our school, I can tell you that I want more than anything to ensure no teacher in our school is ever offering *one* year of falling behind to a student.

    It is hard, however, to tell a teacher — a person who may have dreamed his or her entire life about being a teacher — that he or she is NOT teaching students appropriately or adequately. It’s especially hard when that teacher is a “nice guy.” It hurts. It’s sad. But it is necessary. And when you are in this profession to make even one student better; you can’t be in this profession to make even one student less.

    I’ve met very, very few of the later. I work with none now. I am a blessed administrator in a school that is changing lives of the children in our community daily. “Mother” can keep her rhymes; Benton kids will beat that math vexation. We love a good competition.

    • Let me just reply with a simple compliment and a thank you for taking such a professional “kid-centered” stance in terms of supervision for our school. In the past four years we have made really concrete steps toward becoming the constructivist, student-oriented culture our community deserves.

      This is certainly not an easy task… and one that doesn’t have a huge precedence in the recent history of our school. It is changing us for the better.

  2. Just slightly different perspective …

    I don’t feel like anyone ever did me any favor by trying to hide the difficulty of things or pretend that difficult subjects would be fun and easy. I feel that they helped me most by making me realize it would be worth getting through the difficulty, and helping me find the glimmers of fun at each step. That was the most valuable thing I ever learned when I was young, in retrospect, that new things were confusing and tiresome at first, required boring work for a while, and then became fun and useful.

    So I’m ok with timeless universal stories of the vexation of math, so long as there are also stories of triumph and stories of the real fun of mastery to complete the picture.

    • I think there is a big difference between acknowledging the difficulty of a situation or concept… and setting up something as stressful and onerous in someone’s head far in advance.

      The whole “practice drives me mad” is another part of the verse that, well… drives ME mad. Setting up practice in a challenging subject as something less than positive is just not something I’m ever going to do to someone new to a subject- let alone far in advance of ever experiencing it.

      • I think I was mistaken about the wording of this being realistic, I am beginning to agree with you that it set negative expectations as I think about it more. And I’m out of my element with this age group and trying to apply my own thinking processes, which is probably in appropriate. I guess I was just being contrary. Thanks for your helpful comments.

        • “Contrary” isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Opposing viewpoints in one way or another help to teach us how we think and feel about issues at hand.

          I appreciate you taking the time to think with us here. I’m looking forward to many more conversations.


  3. I think your post also touches on something that’s been tossed around in the educational sphere for quite some time . . . the disparity between performance of girls versus boys in math and science.

    To many people still raise girls to be mothers than mathematicians. I’ve seen it happen and I’m glad it didn’t happen to myself or my sister (a former math teacher, now an actuary).

    I wonder how your math teachers treated girls in your classroom. Was there a palpable bias? Or general disregard for all genders? I’ve seen it happen in other subjects . . . gender bias often knows no bounds.

    • I wondered if someone would bring this one up. Actually- Lafayette has piloted “girls only” math sections in the past. I don’t know if they still do, but from what I remembering hearing of some success, it seems that this might still be going on.


      I’ll have to check that one out, now I’m curious.

      And to be honest- I’m not sure how globally aware a high school boy would be in picking up on something like that. I’m betting it would have to be pretty obvious. It seems to me that high school students are rather “me” centered at that age, as would be expected. I don’t know enough about that. Another good question for sure.

  4. Mulling this over a bit, I want to add that I think the vexation bit is really central. I mean, adults don’t have infinite patience and less so young children. So there’s two sides to dealing with the vexation: (1) the learning environment engages us so that we have things to focus on that engage us and (2) we expect to sometimes experience a little vexation and learn to deal with it in various ways ourselves, rather than relying entirely on teachers, parents, and externally provided games to do it for us.

    • Vexation: “the state of being annoyed, frustrated or worried.”

      I don’t know, Todd… In my opinion, that definition seems a bit over the top for a preschool level challenge. I mean who is to receive the message from Mother Goose, other than a very young child?

      The language in this one is pretty ugly. I’m assuming that you’d choose to present this challenge as one that is worthy of a bit of stress and hard work. However, I would suggest that the vast majority of folks reading this rhyme to children wouldn’t give it its just due in this respect.

      I’m not so sure I really understand what #1 above is trying to say. Can you clarify?

      As far as #2 goes, of course. I am a teacher of almost 20 years of some really challenging subjects at upper high school and beginning college level. I have also been a coach of wrestling for 20 years this Winter. I can’t really imagine anything that is at times more vexing, challenging and fraught with periodic disappointments that amateur wrestling.

      And yet- I have found that pounding the idea of how hard it is into the heads of my athletes isn’t the best approach. I think that is one of the mistakes most young coaches make.

      No- I’d personally rather take an empowering approach, and deal with the certain difficulty as it comes.

      • I’m withdrawing my comments in deference to others who have more recent experience with this age group. I’m not a teacher and my kids are in college. I’ll just clarify that I’m thinking in terms of helping people build resilience, but I certainly agree with you that you don’t build resilience by setting negative expectations. And wrestling is a great model for what is needed for resilience, so as a wrestling coach I’m guessing you have an idea what I was driving at. Thank again.

  5. My thoughts as a 2 year would be greatly influenced from what stories were read to me. If those stories said “eating fruits is great!”- “math is bad!”- then chances are I am going to associate math with bad for quite some time. I am going to dread math from the get-go; just the word would bring up negative connotations.

    To a number of people, math isn’t “easy.” That’s understandable. It’s a lot of numbers, rules, and other silly things that you may or may not use. But to approach it with a glass half empty approach will lead you to fall off the bicycle quickly- it’s ok to fall off the bike, you just have to get back on until you get it.

    If math sucks as a 2 year old, I don’t want to come near that “bicycle,” and if I fall off, I’m sure as heck not getting back on- it’s too hard.

    It’s pure marketing -brand identity.
    When you see the name Ford, what do you think? “Built Ford Tough,” trucks, strong men, heavy duty. That’s what you have seen in their ads for quite some time. For Ford, that’s a positive connotation that they have spent years working on putting that image into your mind.

    Now think of Enron. You think scandal, corruption, greed, etc. That’s not what you probably thought of before you heard the name Kenneth Lay, but one change to the “brand” changed every connotation you had, and now that’s all you remember.

    It’s the same thing with math- if we could get children to read about the positives of doing math, of testing your abilities, challenges, working hard- it could work for all subjects- then you are going to approach school with a completely different attitude as a child, and hopefully that carries through the rest of your life.

    If it works for Ford and other companies, why couldn’t it work for us??? There must be some good reason for them to spend billions of dollars on marketing!

    • Leave it to the marketing guy to bring out the branding lesson. In short: I agree with you wholeheartedly on this one. I think we are always marketing ourselves, our ideals, and our perspective… the world around us. We do it with every action, with every word. None of us are perfect, but I agree that looking at what we do from time to time from the lens of brand identity… is a good thing.

      I really appreciate this perspective here. Starting your first year knowing these things will certainly help you craft the classroom environment you are looking for as you move into the future.

  6. I guess my suspicion is that thinking skills, self-control skills, and so on, are much more important for young children than “branding” of subjects, but the point is well taken since attitudes toward subjects will soon enough become a factor.

    • “Attitudes toward subjects” — is something Benjamin Bloom started working with in the 50’s with his learning taxonomies. Any teacher who has been in the game a year or two (or even been through ed. psych) is familiar with Bloom’s taxonomy of the cognitive domain. However, just as important is the affective domain. Blooms began work on that one as well… and hoped that others would take it farther.

      I think we need more attention paid to this crucial domain of learning. Without the proper attitudes and attending behaviors, cognitive skills are hard to develop.

      Branding isn’t something you teach a child. branding is something you are doing every day (largely subconsciously) you are interacting with children. Your attitudes and approaches to things get picked up on far more quickly than facts or ideas.

  7. I agree 110% that those skills are more important. But if we are building those skills, in this case a Mother Goose book, why build those skills and put down math in the process, leading to less development of the skill set you need and will develop for it? Why not encourage math,build it up (of course we get the cheesy school is cool propaganda as well)?

    Who are the people that are most easily influenced? Children. They are still developing their thoughts and way of thinking, good vs. evil, and the sooner you influence it the “right” way the better. Why else would they have toys in their Happy Meals?

  8. Sean, came to your website after a while (sorry, just have been overwhelmed with work the past few months) and just had to comment on this Math is Hard posting.

    I completely and totally agree with you. For every poem that says math is hard there need to be 10 that describe just how beautiful it is. Just today I was talking with my kids about Goldbach’s conjecture, the idea that every even number can be seen as the sum of two primes. Now this was conjectured back in the late 1700’s I think, but it still remains a conjecture! No proof yet. How exciting is that?

    Or think of the idea of the proof. I remember working with my kids (when they were quite little) on trying to prove that the sum of two odd numbers is always an even number (or that an even and odd number always sum up to an odd number). How do you explain a proof to a kid who always seeks to fall back on concrete examples (3+5 or 6 + 3 and the like). Well, we did it by thinking of even numbers as being in pairs (having partners is what I think we said) and odd numbers always having an “odd” one out. (Which is why we call them odd, I guess.) Once you get this idea, the rest of the proof follows. In a math textbook we would prove it by saying all even numbers can be represented by 2n and odd numbers by 2n+1 – which when you think of it is exactly what we did, except we didn’t use any fancy notation. As my kids said, when you add an odd number to another odd number the ones left out now have partners.

    I have always been amazing at just how fun (and beautiful) math can be, and how this can be shared with kids.

    In my teaching I put in an extra effort to use examples from across the curricular spectrum, from math and literature and art and what have you. Sometimes I get a teacher in my class who responds to the mathematical examples by saying “I don’t get math.” I rarely loose it while teaching but this is an instance where I get close. What kind of an influence is this teacher going to be on the kids in her class? What a terrible, terrible thing to say.

    Anyway, I am glad you didn’t read the poem to your kid.

    On a related note you may be interested in a little experiment I am doing with my daughter (now in 5th Grade). I just wrote about it on my blog (check out http://bit.ly/nRzR3 )

    Take care ~ punya

    • Your apologies are no good here, Sir. I have been in a similar space myself trying to simultaneously wrangle a half dozen significant projects. I haven’t been able to scan down my blogroll like I would prefer in a long time. That leaves me feeling disconnected to the work of those I admire.

      What’s funny, is that I actually have your “Sci-Po” post open in a browser tab. I love it in so many ways. I think I got the link from the Twitterstream this weekend. I realized then that I was quite disconnected from my normal reading. It was funny seeing these comments here today. Felt a bit like an alignment in the force. 😉

      I actually forwarded my email notification of this comment to a couple of math teachers in my school. I loved seeing you geek out on numbers here. I guarantee they will love it.

      Reading your words about numeracy at the family level is so strangely inspiring. I can promise that the words “math” and “beautiful” were never juxtaposed in my schooling. Reading your post proves what a shame this really is. Erin and I will certainly use this as a reminder to play around in the world of numbers a bit more as the girls grow up. I love it.

      You’re right… isn’t it interesting how it is socially OK to say “I just don’t get math”, and yet the very same folks wouldn’t be caught dead saying, “it’s like… you know… all those letters. I just don’t get words.”

  9. Oooh, now I, and maybe we, have a challenge: To write a little kids’ poem that’s a catchy as that evil bit you quoted, and that tells of the beauty of math, or, that mentions math and challenge, both in a positive way.

    I’ll let it percolate for a while…

    • I have to tell you, that if anything else even remotely like your first comment there comes in… you have seriously inspired. I love it.

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