Arithmetic as Spelling.  Maths as Poetry. 

Movie characters never speak of a sport, music, dance, or art in the defeatist way they speak of maths.  When the protagonist is struggling and ready to give up in any area but maths, someone always steps in with the message “You can do it, keep trying, don’t give up.”  With renewed effort the athlete / artist / musician / dancer perseveres and succeeds.  If only society would encourage mastery of maths with the same zeal.


Can you imagine this conversation:

Child: “I find reading and writing really hard and boring”

Parent: “You know I never liked reading or writing either, never got the hang of it.  Don’t worry about it.”


Or this one:

Player: “I’m so frustrated.  I just can’t ever hit that lay-up.  I give up.  I quit.”

Coach: “It’s about time that you realized that no matter how much you practice.  I’ve always known that you’ll never be any good at basketball.”


Or this one:

Musician: “That riff is just too fast.  I can’t get my fingers to move that quickly.  Let’s cut the song from our list.”

Bandmate: “I really really love that song, but if you don’t want to work on it anymore, no big deal.”


While these sort of conversations don’t show up in videos or books, scenes like the next one are sadly all too common in art and in life:

Student: “Math is stupid.  I never get the right answer and it is useless.  I hate it.”

Teacher: “You’re right.  You’re not cut out for doing math.  Tell you what, I’ll pass you if you promise never to take another math course.”



It is hard to do any interesting or creative mathematics without having mastered the basic arithmetic operations (=, +,-, /, *), the idea of numbers (0123456789), and how operators and numbers can be used together to create meaning.  But mastering simple arithmetic basics is pretty tedious and there are a lot of frustrating ways to get the wrong answer while you are learning.

In this way, arithmetic is very similar to spelling.  Letters have to be decoded into sounds (much like numbers have to be decoded into quantities).  It is only then that the rules for assembling letters into meaningful words and sentences/poetry can be learned (much like the rules for assembling numbers and operators into meaningful statements).

Creative writing has to wait until the uncreative task of mastering spelling is out of the way.  (A poem that starts “lofft notto jnhwwe cofefe” is unlikely to stir any emotions.)  But no-one equates spelling and poetry.  Even the youngest students know that the boring grind of learning to spell is just a step to the interesting task of writing, and that the tedious task of learning how letters combine to create sounds opens the exciting world of the written word.   At every step along the way, delightful books are dangled in front of students to show them what these skills can lead to.

Who would ever tell a child: “Congratulations.  You’re a great speller and you are an expert at the alphabet.  No need to bother learning to read, or to write about truth and beauty.”  What teacher would ever shrug and accept without question that spelling and the alphabet were ends in themselves?  What parent would respond to a child saying “I’m no good at spelling” with “I can’t spell either, don’t worry about it.”?

Compare this to how we treat the challenges of learning maths.  From talking Barbie’s famous “Math is hard”, to a character after movie character saying some variation ofit’s natural to give up trying to learn maths, and it’s not worth the effort anyway.

A large part of the problem is that the maths are typically seen (and taught) as non-creative activities with static questions having precise answers arrived at by using rigidly mechanical processes.  Nothing can be further from the truth.  But in reality, at their core the maths provide concepts and tools for exploring the uncertainties and complexities of the world around us.

Correcting this situation will take something of a revolution, both in our schools and in society at a large.

Many of the most serious challenges facing us today (eg. pandemics, climate change, planning for a lengthy retirement) cannot properly be understood or dealt with without understanding the underlying mathematics.  Our pervasive “I can’t do maths” attitude threatens our future health and well-being.