Emma Teitel: ‘I am a 23-year-old woman who can’t do math’

Why is illiteracy considered a legitimate deficit, while innumeracy is seen as a punchline condition?


Call me a ‘word person’: Old-time, hard-core math drills and testing are still revered

Tori Spelling’s resolution for 2013 is to get back into her skinny jeans. Wyclef Jean’s is to never again remain silent in the face of violence because it’s “a scar on the world’s cheek.” Mine might be more ambitious than both: I am going to learn how to add. In my life, this is anything but a trivial endeavour. I happen to be innumerate—which means I do not, and cannot, do simple math. In fact, I avoid it at all costs. Literally. I’d rather pay the whole dinner bill than try to calculate the tip.

There are many people like me, some of whom may be reading this column: otherwise seemingly well-adjusted members of society who hand the cashier a $20 bill for a coffee when they have exact change, or never bother to count the change when the cashier hands it back because they doubt they’d be able to determine if there was an error. And besides, it would take so long that everyone in line behind them would probably leave the store. (For innumerates, the fear of attempting math is compounded by the fear they’ll hold up the line indefinitely if they do attempt it.)

One recent American study found that for math-phobic people, the anticipation of numerical computation actually triggers a brain reflex commonly associated with pain. According to a recent report in Britain’s Independent, “the number of [British] adults who have numeracy skills no better than those expected of an 11-year-old has shot up from 15 million to 17 million—49 per cent of the adult population—in the last eight years.” That’s a lot of pain, and a lot of self-defeating, ironic surrender. The last time I took math was in the 10th grade. It was a remedial class called personal finance, where the only reason anyone touched a calculator was to steal the batteries.

But the black humour hides the true trauma and stigma of math phobia. For some reason, illiteracy is considered a legitimate deficit, while innumeracy is seen as a punchline condition, the kind of gap girls develop because they can’t be bothered to be logical.  Not only is this nonsense, it obscures the thing that for me was the root of math phobia: the idea that the best way to teach someone something that has concrete right and wrong answers is to make a “game” of it. My first (and fatal) brush with this theory came in the second grade during a drill called “Mad Minute”—also a pre-First World War phrase used, fittingly, by British riflemen to describe the attempt to hit a 12-inch target 15 times in 60 seconds. It was a class-wide competition in mathematical speed and ability. Every student got a sheet of paper with a series of problems on it. The object was to answer as many problems as you could in one minute: one deafeningly silent and scary minute, monitored by a stopwatch on the teacher’s desk. I cheated every single time, because I was so anxious, I could barely think—so I’d look over Marley’s shoulder (thank you, Marley, wherever you are) and write down her subtraction answers. Marley was smart. I got by. But Marley was more than smart; she enjoyed Mad Minute. Not me. Why?

There’s a common misconception, from academia to action movies, that stress breeds success; that you’ll be a better problem-solver if you know an asteroid is heading straight for Earth or, in my case, you only have one minute to prove that you don’t suck at long division. The problem is, however, that when you do suck at long division, pressure doesn’t help your performance. It hinders it, to a point of near paralysis. Yet the Mad Minute approach to math, old-time, hard-core drills and testing, is still very much revered. According to a 2009 academic evaluation of 15-year-old students called the Programme for International Student Assessment, Canada ranks 10th worldwide in math, and many people assume the countries that outrank us—China is one—do so because they use the traditional, high-intensity drill method. People forget, though, that in some cases, these countries remove “unessential” programming from school curriculae, like sports and theatre, in order to focus entirely on academics—math, in particular. They also gloss over the fact that Finland, a country that also outranks us in math, doesn’t put its students through standardized tests until they hit high school, and is significantly lighter on homework.

Myself, I pretty much decided, from the day of my first Mad Minute onward, that I was a word person, not a math person, and word people just aren’t good at math. But I decided I was a “word person,” not so much because I loved to read and write, but because, in English and history class, I didn’t feel pressure to perform. There were no one-minute intelligence contests in English class. There were only open-ended questions, sometimes with more than one right answer. I could play the game of sentences and stories, but no one taught me how to navigate the game with sums and remainders. Which is how I stand before you today, a 23-year-old woman who finds herself determined to learn how to count her change before the store closes.

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Emma Teitel: ‘I am a 23-year-old woman who can’t do math’

  1. For all of society’s emphasis on education, it seems as though we’re teaching kids less and less. I’m assuming that as a writer for Maclean’s, you completed some form of post-secondary education, and yet you said you didn’t take a math class after grade 10. That’s ridiculous verging on the criminal. The same way that people can graduate with a degree in engineering without ever having to write a single essay. Instead of teaching people how to think in different ways, education has become more about job training, and we’re not producing well-rounded individuals.

  2. ‘We’ve arranged a global civilization in which the most crucial elements profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that no one understands
    science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. ”
    Carl Sagan.

    And of course both of them rest on math.

    A standing ovation for you Emma….not only willing to admit it, but to go back and fix it!

    • Ah Emily, ” You are indeed the Baron of Grey Matter.”
      (Curly Howard to Larry and Shemp) 1935

      Ms. Tietel is indeed to be commended for tackling her problem.

      But It would seem, Emily, that Big Chief No Invoices has a similar problem. One that’s dug itself in to the tune of about $104 missing millions.

      So Emily you have fully exposed yourself as a slimy confused hypocrite

      You offer a “standing ovation” to Emma for tackling the problem of innumeracy on her own and at the same time you offer “standing ovations” to Chief No Invoices for attempting to fob her same problem off on Harper.

      Emily, your hypocritical “standing ovations” are worthless.

      • “So Emily you have fully exposed yourself as a slimy confused hypocrite.”
        Now that’s not fair. I doubt that Emily is slimy.

        • Tom, good man, how’s your sporting blood?
          Shall we say 10 bucks?

  3. I hope that Canada’s education system utilizes existing research on learning styles in the future. I had an almost identical experience growing up (I am also 23), and after so many years of fearing math I finally encountered a teacher who taught me the concepts quite successfully and (almost) painlessly. There is more than one way to learn a topic, and with something as stressful as math it would be great to see teachers using different methods when they come across innumerate individuals or youngsters struggling. It seems strange to me that so much of our curriculum development in Canada depends on old set-in-their-ways opinions rather than scientific studies.

  4. Ms. Tietel, thank you for a very interesting and well written story.

    When I read it I was shocked that a bright young child could fall through the cracks in our very expensive educational system, so I consulted with an expert and learned something else today.

    What I learned, in addition to what you’ve told us, is that young children, especially bright ones, are very adept at hiding weaknesses like yours. And you confirm that you had to compromise yourself and cheat on the quizzes to keep the secret.

    There is great emphasis today on success and an extraordinary fear of failure and that I think is good. But, we’ve forgotten that some of the most outstanding successes have not been achieved without set backs

    So, since this is quotation day, I have one up on the wall from T. H. Huxley and it’s this:

    “Next to being RIGHT in this world, the best of all possible things is to be completely and unquestionably WRONG.”

    The best lessons, the ones we never forget, are the ones we get when we’ve been kicked in the pants. If only you’d had the knowledge as a young child to shout, “HEY *%&$#, GET OVER HERE, I CAN’T DO THIS,” there would likely be a lot fewer waiters out there with an undeserved $20 tip.

    Thanks for the story, it’s a good one.

  5. Is the author truly innumerate or simply not quick with numbers?

    Plenty of people understand the “hows and whys” of long division but still can’t
    do it quickly in their heads … count everyone in my family into that group. Our
    household has multiple STEM degrees and advanced math courses under our belts
    but we still stumble with doing a speedy subtraction; fingers are used consistently.
    The generations subjected to traditional, Chinese-style high intensity drills
    haven’t fared any better than those who were not.

    I understand that one of the tests they use to detect for dementia/memory
    loss in seniors involves counting backwards from 100 by 7s. Apparently, while
    we might be able to perform high level statistical analyses, appreciate advanced
    calculus & whip up a mean spreadsheet, everyone in our family has been
    suffering dementia since childhood!

  6. Emma, having been a “math phobic” myself and a remedial math graduate, I am thinking perhaps you are lacking in confidence rather than the potential to excel. I attended a university prep math program and like yourself only had grade 10 “remedial” math….grade 9 math really. The prof was the head of the university math program (a brilliant lady who confessed to extreme test anxiety). The first thing she did was ban the calculators. Next she made us all relearn our times-tables by route. By the end of the 6 month program we were completing the grade 12 advanced math program (with the calculators). I do not believe that anything that makes you panic (drills), makes you think more clearly because it creates a fight/flight response in the body and the blood does not flow to the brain but to extremities. The trick is never to panic! The trick to doing percentages in your head is to always start at 10% and then 1/2 for 5%; double for 20%, etc. Good luck Emma. Remember, remain calm. You are smart and you will succeed.

  7. I totally connected with Ms. Teitel, though I am of that drill and memorize generation. It wasn’t until many years of teaching that my own computation skills showed significant improvement. As a child I panicked when a timer was used, or I was put on the spot. Many “new” approaches are in fact being tried/used in our school system, including a plethora of computer programmes to help children improve in math. More time, and substantial practice in class and sometimes at home, is still needed. Unfortunately, a rediculously massive curriculum, and insanely busy lifestyles of families, do not allow for this. There are also quite a number of individuals who will never be able to remember their multiplication tables, will use calculators, and will lead very successful and productive lives. Am now retired and so happy to no longer be caught up in the “race”. I do commend Ms. Teitel for taking the initiative to improve!

  8. Ah, Emma! How I wish you lived near me. I, too, am a word person. But I am also a math person. And I am the world’s best tutor. It grieves me to know how many people suffer as you do, all because you were never taught properly. It wasn’t your fault. Nobody took the trouble to identify the best route into the math part of your brain. Your new vow is noble. Don’t let those bad feelings beat you up. Let yourself off the hook.

  9. Emma, I am an elementary teacher, and I feel for you. I never really enjoyed math, and worried as a new teacher how I could hide my dislike for the subject and teach it effectively. I found a way to do it through Jump Math. I would recommend you try it. The program is created by John Mighton, U of T professor. You should read his books. They’ll make you feel much better about your potential in math and other intellectual challenges. Go back to the grade level where you felt you went astray (for me it was Grade 5) and do the workbooks. Every single skill is broken down so well that you cannot fail to understand the concept being taught. Truly, you cannot fail! The workbooks can be purchased at any book store, and are called Jump at Home. The school versions (basically the same) are available at teacher stores. You really can teach yourself this way. It might just change your life. At the very least, you will no longer be innumerate. Good luck!

  10. Emma, you go girl! I have worked with many adults who come back to school to improve their math skills, and I know that one-to-one help is the best way to get over the hump of lack of confidence. I also like John Mighton’s Jump Math approach, but having a kind and patient tutor is the best way to improve your math skills. When students start in my class, most believe thay are the only one who cannot understand how to do math. Thank you for your article; I will read it in class tomorrow.

  11. A quick glance at a population chart for England shows their population increased from about 59 to 62 million during the cited period. Then we’re shocked with the report that “the number of [British] adults who have numeracy skills no better than those expected of an 11-year-old has shot up from 15 million to 17 million—49 per cent of the adult population—in the last eight years.” Well, without these details for context, the article does not provide a percentage for before & after. That would be helpful.

  12. I really empathized with this article, up until recently I was the same way. However, I was able to finally learn basic math largely thanks to Khanacademy.org. I kept using it and now I’ve caught up to grade 11 math (the last grade that requires math in current B.C schools) and intend to keep going because I plan on learning programming/computer science via MIT open course ware (http://ocw.mit.edu) in my spare time. Once you’ve got a handle on simple arithmetic I’d recommend learning Vedic math techniques so you can do mental math quickly.

  13. How in the Heck did you manage to get out of grade school, did they have a no zero policy for your school?

    Not being able to do math is no more excusable than not being not able to read, it is simply a reflection on the fact that the education system is letting people progress when they should not be.

    To say that you need one but not the other is simply wrong is so many ways.

  14. Dear Emma; In every English-speaking country in the world,except the United States,we say”in grade ten”.Only Americans say”in the tenth grade”,thank you.

  15. Emma… Thank you for this article. I grew up in the 60s and developed a math phobia in the the 6 and 7th grade at the hand of a teacher who really was Satan in a skirt. She’d hover over me while doing long division and pinch my arm for making errors. Many a slap to the back of the head was received. Being dragged to the front of the class to work out the problem on the blackboard was a regular experience.
    I also avoided math. Got a BA with a psych major but further education and employment options were limited. I found a great foundations class at the local community college and with a patient instructor was able to overcome that problem. Eventually I completed an engineering technology diploma, graduated 2nd in the class and passed calculus with 82%. I look at that achievement as a sort of revenge and it was served cold.

  16. Know your limitations, and know when you need to ask for help. Use tools like a calculator, provided those gadgets make sense. I totally understand the embarassment, the shame and distress not being able to deal with numbers as efficiently as we’d like. Educators play such a huge role in this. When you find that magic teacher who speaks your language when it comes to math instruction, it is quite amazing! Yet we stigmatize those of us who would rather write a 1,000, or 2,000 word essay instead of one math question. We are labelled slow, stupid, dense, accused of not trying hard enough…the list is endless. Math is a part of our life for all of our lives and those of us who arer not friends with it need to make our own peace with this monster. Be brave enough to hold up the line and count your change!

  17. I don’t believe that basic math requires special intelligence. It’s memorizing. Maybe if you
    had practised as much as your peers things would have been different.

  18. It is ironic that the author of the article is a word person and yet when one gets to an expert level in maths you have to be adept in manipulating symbols and using sentences in writing elegant proofs. Mathematics does not have that much to do with numbers, that is the realm of arithmetic, rather maths is symbols. Being brilliant at working out square roots without a calculator does not mean you are good at maths. You are good at being a substitute for a calculator. For instance many maths olympiad takers will solve problems at a blinding pace yet if you ask them to generalize algebraically how to solve al such type of problems then they are stuck. So to the author, it will be recommended to take elementary maths classes with supplementing material as to why those elementary operations are true algebraically. Eg. If you have paid 20 dollars for a pizza and received 2 dollars change the how much did you pay actually? Easy: 20 = x (what you paid) + 2(change). Now to work out x you just subtract 2 from both sides ans bingo. For anyone smart here’s one: suppose a^n < b (a to the power of n). When do you change the sign when solving for n? Oh and see, no numbers in that question, just symbols…

  19. I thought it was okay to keep saying “I’m bad at math” until I was in a Managerial Economics course and understood all the concepts perfectly but could not manage the algebra. Then I said “This stops now”, and spent that spring and summer doing Grade 10, 11, and 12 Pure Math over again. I improved on all of my high school final marks by at least 30% in each course – approximately 1% for each year since I had been in high school – proving once again that: 1) Math is wasted on most teenagers; 2) School is much easier when you are doing it for yourself; 3) Age ain’t nothin’ but a number.

  20. Hi,

    I wanted to let you know that I felt better after reading your post on this as I am also a 23 year old woman who struggles with mental math. It felt nice to know that I am not the only one with what I consider to be an embarrassing problem.

    It is not easy, especially when I had a job as a cashier and some of my coworkers knew I couldn’t do it and one of them would constantly belittle me in front of the others for not being quick enough to calculate change and having very insufficient brain/memory power.

    If you (or anyone who is reading this) are interested, would you like to work together to improve our ability in mental math? Please let me know.