Students are told that math is vital, but also that it's an inherent talent. You're either born with it or you're not, like Jedi powers. (Remember, that genetic component is small and easily defeated, like our favorite street-fighting opponents, babies.) After filling kids' heads with these fears, we then tell them they have to ace some difficult timed tests or be held back. And if they are held back, that means they're just plain bad at math. It's like telling teenagers, "You failed your first driving test, so you can't be taught to drive. You'll have to walk forever. Sorry, but this crucial skill simply isn't for you."
This also seems to be why girls struggle with math anxiety more than boys. For some reason, we still perpetuate the stereotype that manipulating numbers requires a penis, so girls aren't motivated to overcome that perceived adversity, and boys are encouraged to coast on their perceived superiority right up until they crash into a wall of calculus.
If we change how math is taught now, perhaps our children won't be doomed to a lifetime of accidentally paying triple their taxes. We present math as a series of rules you must master, lest the number goblins sense your flaws and devour you. But you don't need to rattle off multiplication tables anymore, for the same reason you no longer need to churn your own butter -- we have machines to do that for us. What you do need to be able to do is use a set of tools to solve problems. That's how math needs to be presented: as problems you play around with at your own pace.
No, seriously. Countries that emphasize the touchy-feely "Don't worry about making mistakes, just keep trying until you figure it out" approach absolutely kick America's ass at math. China, Japan, Singapore, Korea, and other countries aren't performing better at this because Asians have mystical math powers, but because they stress the idea that anyone can get better at it as long as they keep practicing. So if we want to get more people into STEM fields, the answer isn't breeding superior algebraic soldiers, but rather to stop treating numbers as if they are angry ghosts that can only be battled by gifted mathemagicians.
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