Dealing With the Shame of Feeling Wrong
The first and most important reason to learn math is to learn strategies for handling the shame of feeling wrong. Shame occurs when there is an expectation of a negative outcome. This occurs most often when you feel wrong about something. It is natural, healthy, important and entirely unpleasant for humans to feel this way. As a result of this unpleasantness, humans withdraw or avoid situations when they expect a negative outcome. They also may attack themselves or others, which is damaging to individuals and communities in subtle and severe ways. This is called the Compass of Shame.
Still, the feeling of shame or wrongness is not something to be prevented. People need to learn how to deal – in a healthy manner – with the inevitable shame they will feel when they feel wrong. Despite being such an important and fundamental life skill, shame handling strategies are not explicitly taught in school.
This is where I think math class comes in. Math is different from other subjects because the duality of right and wrong is at the forefront of everything. The questions have one correct answer printed in black and white in the back of the book that the students are expected to figure out by implementing the appropriate math concept in the correct way. Anything else is relegated to “partial credit” – if you’re lucky. What’s more is that math is comprised entirely with foreign symbols and math-specific vocabulary that is seldom seen or heard outside of the classroom. There is hardly any intuition to go on and students are asked daily to correctly apply these new, foreign, briefly explained concepts almost immediately.
This means that if the students are being challenged in math class, they are going to feel wrong way more often than they will feel right. This is what happens when you learn something new. However, feeling wrong so much (or at all) is shame inducing and will often result in attacking someone else (“Math sucks. Teacher doesn’t explain anything.”), attacking yourself (“I was never good at math. I can’t do it.”), withdrawing, or avoiding math altogether (“I don’t want to do it.”). Staying engaged and focused on learning despite the constant feeling of wrongness takes tremendous introspective ability that the majority of humans do not have. And we expect our 15 year olds to do it every day and not learn to hate math.
There is potential for students to learn shame handling strategies associated with feeling wrong while learning math. I don’t know how to deliver this value to every student and am very skeptical of articles that say they have figured out how. Figuring this out is the whole purpose of this website. I am not sure I will ever figure it out but it is certainly a worthy pursuit. Learning math can be so important for every person and it is certainly not because every person needs to know how to divide fractions or find the slope of a line.
I also feel the need to clarify that just because you did well in math class does not mean you have well developed strategies for handling when you feel wrong. Also, if you did not do well in math class, that doesn’t mean you have less of an ability to deal with feeling wrong. I’m saying strategies for dealing with feeling wrong need to be explicitly taught in school and math class is the best place for that to happen.
Sending a Signal
The other value in learning math is that you are able to send signals to people and institutions about yourself. Our education system can be viewed as a signaling game. Your math skills send a signal via test scores to people and institutions. There is a high value placed on these signals. They indicate something about you that the people you are trying to impress care greatly about.
Math ability is similar to the stotting behavior of gazelles. Stotting is a behavior of gazelles and deer where they repeatedly spring or leap into the air with all four feet off the ground. They typically do this in the presence of threatening predators. It signals to the predators that they would be difficult to catch because of their leaping ability. The animal’s leaping ability is honestly signaling the individual animal’s fitness. Still, stotting is not the animal’s ability to escape if it were actually chased. It just signals what their ability to escape might be like.
Math ability is not the ability to succeed at a university, a job, or in life. Math ability is predominantly used to achieve scores on math tests that signal to admissions officers, human resources managers, and other people in our life about our ability to succeed. Is this an honest signal? What exactly about the individual do these test scores signal? This table is a great visualization for these questions. Discussing it is for another post. Regardless, society pays close attention to one’s math ability and so there is value in sending a strong signal.