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Over the past few days I have been pondering about this: I enjoy technical things (like programming and stuff) and try to find the patterns and algorithms in everything. My life is number oriented. I'll spend all day working on a programmatic problem. I'll spend however much time is needed to think of an elegant/efficient solution. Yet I have am not as good with high school Algebra (I am sixteen)... I don't get it. How can I love numbers but not be very good at math? I think I slacked off in my earlier years in math classes because I found them to be boring. I feel like I am behind a wall. On the other side is math. I need to lower down this wall, but at the moment I am unable to identify it or its cause. I feel like I love math, but am no good at it or have been taught poorly. I understand that I can get no where in Computer Science if I am bad at math. I find some aspects of math to be boring... perhaps teachers don't do well at explaining it in the US (I've researched). Since I assume there are some great mathematicians here, I would like to request some advice.


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Dear Tod, Let me iterate Amitesh's request that you specify in more detail what parts of math you feel behind in or that you don't understand. You could do this by describing some specific topics, or (maybe even better) giving an example of a problem or class of problems that you don't know how to solve. Regards, –  Matt E Jul 8 '11 at 12:22
@Aryabhata I am cleaning up this comment discussion thread which veered rather off topic. –  Willie Wong Jan 6 '12 at 9:31
@AmiteshDatta see above. –  Willie Wong Jan 6 '12 at 9:32
It reminded me of this. –  Igäria Mnagarka Mar 23 '13 at 0:58
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closed as not constructive by Eric Naslund, mixedmath, Andres Caicedo, Willie Wong Jan 6 '12 at 9:30

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5 Answers

In recent years teachers in the USA have been under heavy pressure to teach only what can be tested on standardized tests. That has been corrupting the education system to the point where teachers orchestrate widespread cheating on standardized tests to get federal funding for the school.

There's also the fact that high schools are required to teach math to everyone, including those who are not interested. That results in courses of a kind that almost everyone can pass, thereby holding back those who are interested and could do well in the topic.

I would recommend two books by C. Stanley Ogilvy to high-school students interested in mathematics: Excursions in Number Theory and Excursions in Geometry. Those are addressed to students who don't yet know much but are intelligent and want to understand the subject, as opposed to wanting to pass standardized tests in it.

PS: People's interests and abilities differ greatly. Failing to match some standard ideal prescribed by a system that suffers from the sort of corruptions I've mentioned above doesn't mean something is wrong with you.

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High school math classes generally reward rote memorization and a fairly straightforward application of formulas to problems. There is not a lot of why or how or what if in the curriculum.

The mathematics that you speak of is the proof-based, abstract thinking classes that one sees in certain high-school camps (such as Ross or PROMYS), or in college.

I don't think we can diagnose exactly what it is between you and high school math. That type of math is very cumulative, and missing out on something years earlier can hurt you later. It could be a dry teaching style; it could be a boring curriculum; it could be that you fell behind and never quite caught up; or perhaps you simply prefer to think abstractly in computer problems.

Here are some ideas: Practice the more fundamental things that you are weaker on. Find a good tutor or teacher, whether locally or online. See if you can find a mentor or tutor at a local college or university. Look for people who are doing what you'd like to do in 5-10 years and ask them how they learned math, or how much they used it in their studies or careers.

The amount of math you need in computer science depends on how far you are planning to go, and whether you plan to be in a theoretical or an applied field.

Finally, Lockhart's Lament (PDF) may be an interesting read for you.

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When I was in middle and high [public] school, I used to carry around a notebook and do all sorts of little calculations and things. One of my proudest moments is when I figured out the 45-45-90 triangle rule (and, of course, in retrospect this is kind of silly but at the time it felt amazing). But (and here is the point of me telling this story), when I asked the teacher who taught geometry at my school about my idea, he said that he had never heard of it. I will not even chalk this up to me not explaining it correctly, because the picture was fairly telling. But this story should also be telling of exactly how poor many of my math classes were (and, subsequently, how jealous I was of some of the other math kids when I went to college).

In fact, I made a C the first time I took middle-school algebra. But to such things, you just have to kind of laugh, learn, and try to do better next time. There are plenty of mathematical resources online (khan, tons of "dummies" books, etc.) as well as offline (if you have money to afford a tutor, or perhaps going to some of the "better" math teachers at your school and asking them for help --- this doesn't always work, I hear, but it worked for me).

As people have noted before me here, high school math isn't the be-all-end-all of mathematics. If you have a particularly poor teacher, they may just introduce topics with no motivation, which makes mathematics more of an exercise in rote memorizing instead of manipulating machinery and techniques. This is especially true for those teachers who are unsure, themselves, about the motivation behind a particular topic in mathematics.

Yeah. Just stick with it. If you're really into it, you'll come out on top in the end.

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Try getting yourself a private tutor. One who will be attuned enough to your needs and abilities that s/he might be able to help you personally analyze and get over your difficulties. One who loves mathematics, not just helps people pass SAT's.

You might start by looking at TutorsTeach.com and/or DirectoryOfTutors.com .

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If you truly enjoy numbers and programming, yet you're having trouble in a high school math course, it is a safe bet that there is nothing wrong with you. The problem is that your math teachers for the past 4 years (at least) have almost certainly been blithering idiots. This is unfortunately quite common (especially in math), and the only solution is to learn it on your own, as our supposed educational system has failed you.

The book that really got me interested, when I was slightly younger than you are now, is Douglas Downing's Algebra the Easy Way. It's pretty silly at first glance, but it's got a lot of great material and it's extremely accessible. And it taught me some things I never learned elsewhere, even in college. Downing's other two books (Trigonometry and Calculus) are supposed to be excellent as well, but I have no personal experience.

Whatever book or text or whatever you get to help you, remember that it (probably) will not help just to read the thing cover to cover. Any decent book will come with practice exercises, maybe even a CD full of tests, trainers, and such. You actually have to do these, or you're just fibbing to yourself about trying to learn. They should be marked by difficulty; start with the easy ones to make sure you have the basic concepts under control, then work up to the tough ones. At least one author I know of likes to reserve his highest difficulty ranking for questions that are actually open research problems; don't try to do those! But you shouldn't find that in an introductory text.

The most important thing is not to get discouraged and assume you're just plain incompetent, because it's not true. I have never met anyone who was simply unable to understand a high school level of mathematics, just people who either weren't trying or who had never had a competent teacher. It seems like you're trying, so I suspect the latter cause.

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I diagree that it is necessary to have a competent teacher in order to learn mathematics. I once heard that "The best lessons are always self-taught" and I could not agree more. It is an important skill to be able to learn mathematics on one's own and a skill I believe most people have but just do not use. I agree that many high school mathematics teachers do not have as much mathematical knowledge as they should but to say that almost all such teachers are "blithering idiots" is a bit much. I have known at least one decent mathematics teacher who was actually quite competent. –  Amitesh Datta Jul 8 '11 at 7:42
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