If teens dislike math, here’s another place where the schools have failed them. Those who struggle with math do so because they have been force-fed math on paper since they were five-years-old, almost always without any real world application attached. This method works for the small fraction of the population that adores math for math’s sake whether it’s “real” or not.

For the rest of us, math should be learned in the real world. It should begin with counting and splitting up M&M’s and cookies when kids are two, not having them draw circles around groups of objects when they are in kindergarten. Children should learn how to count money by shopping with an adult who cares about them, not by adding up the value of coins printed on a worksheet page. If teens dislike math, it’s because they have been taught from the beginning that: 1) You have to learn it the teacher’s way and you have to do it now, 2) You don’t have any other choice, and 3) It Will Be Important Someday So You Better Be Afraid of What Will Happen If You Don’t (whether that means a bad grade or a bad career or maybe even a life of crime!).

If teens dislike math, it’s because they have never had a chance to fall in love with the game of playing with numbers.

Is there a chance for them to regain this lost chance? If there parents didn’t teach them one to one correspondence by counting out dinner dishes when they were setting the table as children, can they still discover the joy of numbers? I think so. But it’s probably a lot harder at this point. They’ve got to build something, and I don’t mean a bird feeder in wood-shop. How about a cabin? How about a car? They’ve got to be invested in something that requires math. And it might help to reassure them that if they are seriously interested in mastering elementary math so that they can gracefully move on to higher math, they can probably do it in just a few weeks if they put their math anxiety on the shelf and learn to play with numbers. It’s okay to start all over again in a new context, especially if the initial methodology was just plain FAILING most students. I work with high school graduates who can’t do very basic calculations with division and multiplication, and some who don’t know the difference between 2.8 pounds and 2 pounds, 8 ounces. This is not their failure. This is the failure of the schools and their math-anxiety creating methods.