Sorry, but I'll have to disagree with you about this one. Wholeheartedly. If you have the idea that you're "bad at math" then you're simply wrong. Dead wrong. How do I know this? Because no one was worse at Math than I was. I was at the bottom of my class throughout my teens and was convinced that Math is nothing but a torture device in the hands of my sadistic teachers.
Last week I published a post describing my personal Math journey. Several people have commented on the article on social media to the effect of: "I'm bad at Math". the purpose of this post is to thoroughly disabuse them of this notion.
In his 2015 TED Talk, Mr. Sal Khan argues that the approach taken to teach math today in most public schools accounts for the high failure rate in the subject. Students are grouped together, typically by age and are shepherd together through the curriculum. Every few weeks the students will receive a test to asses their knowledge and regardless of how each individual student did on the test the class -- as a whole -- would move on to the next subject.
That, right there, is the heart of the problem. You see, mathematical concepts build on one another. You can't understand Algebra without first understanding Arithmetic. Similarly, you can't understand Calculus without understanding Algebra first. It's just the way it is. But remember that time you got 85% or even 95% in your Math test when you were in middle school? Well, guess what? That gap was never corrected and later on when you tried to tackle the next subject you were missing 5%-15% of the required knowledge to understand it. So now you're only getting 70% on your next test and soon enough you'll be well on your way to hate Math and anyone and anything connected with it.
To really drive his point home, Mr. Khan used an analogy to Home Building:
To appreciate how absurd that is, imagine if we did other things in our life that way. Say, home-building.
So we bring in the contractor and say, "We were told we have two weeks to build a foundation. Do what you can."
So they do what they can. Maybe it rains. Maybe some of the supplies don't show up. And two weeks later, the inspector comes, looks around, says, "OK, the concrete is still wet right over there, that part's not quite up to code ... I'll give it an 80 percent."
You say, "Great! That's a C. Let's build the first floor."
OK, so that's all nice and good. But you might be asking yourself: "yea, but why do I need to learn Math? I got it that you're excited about Math and all that. Why do I need to care?" Well, if you're reading this post, chances are that you're a programmer. While many programmers try — and to varying degrees succeed — at ignoring Math, they are painting themselves into a very tight corner. Computer Science has its roots firmly established in Mathematics and therefore ignoring Math means ignoring the very foundation upon which the entire subject rests on.
Eventually, automation will catch up to the more trivial tasks of programming and those with only superficial understanding of the subject will be at risk of being replaced -- ironically -- by their own tools.
OK, so hopefully by now I convinced you that you're not "bad" at Math. That you're not lacking some mysterious Math gene and that Math is not something that is reserved to the exceptionally smart.
Where do you start? Personally, I like the way Khan Academy is broken up by subjects and grades:
When I signed up I decided to swallow my pride and start at the very beginning. Yes, I was doing arithmetic and kindergarten level Math again. But since I was doing it at my own home, on my own time, no one was there to judge me or tease me. And by doing so I was making sure that I was covering every gap in my Math education. And you know what? I found gaps as early as the 1st or 2nd grade!
Next thing you know I was gaining ground and tackling more and more complex subjects. These same subjects I flunked throughout my high school years. So I know it can be done, because I've done it.
Top comments (20)
Thank you so much for sharing! I've been recently diving back into math, and plan to take Khan Academy courses to do so (along with the electrical engineering path)!
I enjoyed math in school, but didn't have practical applications for trig for instance, so I just kind of lost it. I also felt like there were gaps along the way as you mentioned in your post.
Jumping into web animation, let alone canvas (p5js is an awesome JS library for canvas) I realize how much math and physics I want to understand and implement it in code to take animations to the next level!
Really cool. And I totally agree. If someone would have shown me what math is good for way back when, I might have figured that it's worth learning or even pursuing. Math was too abstract for me to see the connection. But once I saw its application in computer science I realized what I had been missing on and decided to find a way to learn it.
It was interesting reading this. As I was in the same boat. In my case I have been wanting to move into graphics engineering. Which is nothing but math. And for a while I had the excuse of I couldn't do math... But I got that out of my head bought a ton of for dummies books on math with work books ect. And hit the ground running. Between the books my brothers help and kahn academy its been really cool seeing my own progression in a subject. That I was once terrible at. In fact I have been able to start using my knowledge in math to work on some small programs while learning c++. I found it has really solidify'ed my knowledge in the specific subjects I have been studying.
Good stuff. And yes, it's very satisfying to see math comes to life and becomes applicable.
Yea I think the biggest thing is begin able to eventually see it become applicable. Although if there was one piece of advice I would give. Is when your learning the concepts dont try to find a meaning as to what and why. Because for me it just slowed me down. I would say just know at some point you will be using it for your specific end goal.
Yes, yes and yes. I know the topic and I agree, and actually I am bad ... mainly because I haven't practiced it.
Me, after 10+ yrs of programming, I had to go to Khan Academy Algebra 1,2, trigonometry and so on. It's all about practice and learning.
As I forgot about backtracking and hand writing I also forgot how polynomials and division work because ... computers and internet.
Also most of the school teachers suck, same as the educational systems, so ... is not entire my fault.
So very true. All these high level languages, frameworks and syntactic sweets got us all a little out of shape. It's time to get back to basics.
Thank you for this great article! I just recently finished my cs degree and was thinking of restarting all the maths concepts i missed in class but i did not know how to start, but now i have an idea of where to begin from!
Very glad to hear!
i need your advice first i try to learn math from 2 years
so i try 2 times on different courses on edx but after short period i forgot
so form month i start in khan academy and it is perfect for sure but i started from
pre algebra and start on algebra only the reason why i try to learn math is
first to study and understand cs second to learn math and physics
so what you see continue on algebra or take math by grades i don't have any problem
if it take for my even years my main goal is to understand
If you're doing good with Algebra I say continue with that. If you run into trouble I would say go to earlier grades.
I feel the math mission at khans academy really helps me
Nice! Can you tell us more?
Log into Khan's Academy and then go to
Props to you for starting at the bottom. I've tried to spot-fill my knowledge using Khan Academy and eventually I always flame out. I should give this a shot.
Indeed sir. It's embarrassing at first. But you get over it really fast. And the more "advanced" math suddenly just becomes the next logical step. I also use mathsisfun.com from time to time when I want to lookup a specific concept and I don't have the patience to watch a whole video or I just want to get a "second opinion".
I feel like this is a bit disingenuous because some people are genuinely bad at math. What about Dyscalculia?
Dyscalculia is, in my opinion, a bit of an edge case and I don't know enough about it to offer any solid advice. However I do know that people with dyslexia manage to get by fine once they're aware of it and know how to deal with it, so I suspect the same for those with dyscalculia.
My 'positive thinking' is that yes, some people will need to work harder/longer than others, but that doesn't necessarily mean that they're bad at maths.
Yes, there are people whose way of thinking means they 'get' maths much more easily than others, but it doesn't mean that those who think differently are necessarily bad at maths either.
As one who teaches maths for a living, it ultimately boils down to attitude and persistence. I can't help any student who is stuck in the 'I'm bad at maths' mindset, but I damn well will help anybody (to the best of my ability) who's willing to try.