Math Class is Tough

In his podcast, Akimbo, Seth Godin teaches us how to adopt a posture of possibility, change the culture, and choose to make a difference. Here are my takeaways from the episode.

In this podcast, Seth discussed why math class appears to be hard for some people and encouraged all of us to think about how we view math differently.

One reason that math class feels hard is how we teach math in school. The math taught in school are mostly just arithmetic calculation and formula memorization. Arithmetic can be boring, and we know how to do arithmetic and complex calculation with a computer. Many of us are also not good at memorizing formulas that make no sense to us, especially when we can search or look up the formulas easily.

Math classes emphasize arithmetic calculation and formula memorization because we can easily test people and measure them for progress on those activities. The society also has built schools to create people who could do well on standardized tests and in the math class.

But, the dichotomy of the situation is that all of us are good at math, and we do math every day. Even the deceivingly simple act of sport competition involves extraordinarily complex math without us even realizing it.

Math is concrete, pure, and real. Our eyes, ears, and other senses can sometimes fool us, but math does not. Math tells us exactly how the world is. One area of math we all use regularly is for making decisions and considering trade-offs. When we evaluate the decisions and tradeoffs, we spent a lot of time with probability.

One classic decision and tradeoff situation that involves math is the Monty Hall problem. The problem is a paradox because the correct choice (that one should switch doors) is so counterintuitive it can seem absurd. The math would tell us that switching door is nevertheless the demonstrably better strategy.

We do not experience many of the Monty-Hall-like probability choices in real life – at least we do not realize we do. But the fact is, it is there. We need to be cognizant of our own biases and work with the math when necessary, especially now with the huge amount of information and data in front of us. The oversupply of data is one reason why it is so difficult to ignore sunk costs.

Human beings are bad at getting past the emotions and seeing the actual costs and the probability of taking certain actions. We do not need to become have an advanced math degree to appreciate what a wonderful tool that math is. We can certainly learn and increase our knowledge about using math for decision-making and solving problems that can benefit from it.