In Defense of Math (and Art)

Recently a friend shared this image on social media, and it really got me thinking.

After a few hours, I left a reply:

“Math can confuse, but it can’t intimidate or embarrass. Those last two are on teachers. And those teachers, unfortunately, exist in every subject area.”

I think there are many similarities between math and art. Perhaps the most obvious is the significant problem solving shared by the two disciplines. Problem solving involves lots of trial and error. Errors and failures – especially when they take place in a supportive environment with timely feedback – are important catalysts for learning.

In her book Daring Greatly, Brené Brown shares a quote from someone she interviewed. The person said, “There are times when you can ask questions or challenge ideas, but if you’ve got a teacher that doesn’t like that or the kids in the class make fun of people who do that, it’s bad. I think most of us learn that it’s best not just keep your head down, your mouth shut, and your grades high.” Then Brené writes that teachers need to understand “how scarcity is affecting the way we lead and work, learning how to engage with vulnerability, and recognizing and combating shame” (pp. 187-188).

Whether in math or art class, if a student leaves confused, embarrassed or intimidated, is not the subject matter’s fault. It’s largely the result of teachers who, for whatever reason, are not able to create and facilitate an environment where students are willing to be vulnerable by making a guess, taking a risk, or offering an idea. Teachers of subjects that require this continued vulnerability from students (maybe all subjects do?) really need to dig into some work about shame and vulnerability and think about how the public perceptions of their subjects could be changed if we humanized education in the ways Brown suggests.