Why Math Can Be Hard (for some people)

There was a long discussion on why Math is hard (for some people) in this talk on Thinking. It was a fascinating discussion. Some notes and quotes.

Why do some children find Math hard to learn? I suspect that this is often caused by starting with the practice and drill of a bunch of skills called Arithmetic—and instead of promoting inventiveness, we focus on preventing mistakes. I suspect that this negative emphasis leads many children not only to dislike Arithmetic, but also later to become averse to everything else that smells of technology. It might even lead to a long-term distaste for the use of symbolic representations. – Marvin Minsky

“Math know-how is cumulative, which means it works much like a stack of building blocks. You have to gain understanding in one area before you can effectively go on to “build upon” another area.” – from Why Math is Hard

Some comments from the students from the class and my own questions.

  • One student thought that Math was considered hard because lot of others thought it was hard. He attributes it to the Social Influence.
  • Lack of a cognitive map of the subject. What is it? Why are we learning it? What is it used for?
  • Math is the opposite of commonsense which other subjects leverage, to some extent. Is it too abstract? One student mentioned that he thought of Math mostly in terms of procedures.

There may be many other reasons. It will be great to see why.


I loved Math. Not sure why. I was lazy as a student and this was  one subject in which your return on investment in time was very high. May be because,  I had great Math teachers and I learned and liked the subject.  Now after almost 40 years, I want to go back and understand it better, dig deeper and get that “Cognitive Map” , Marvin Minsky talks about.

If you are interested in digging a bit deeper, these links and books may help

What makes Mathematics hard to learn?  A very good article by Marvin Minsky

Why Math is Hard from About.com

Letters to a Young Mathematician (about college level Math) by Ian Stuart

What Is Mathematics? (Just started reading it)

3 thoughts on “Why Math Can Be Hard (for some people)

  1. Thanks for a nice post. Liked the following two takeaways:

    a) Strong foundation is a must before one proceeds to higher lessons.

    b) Patient, persistent practice alone can guarantee such strong foundation.

    Cannot agree more.

    1. Thanks Rajashree. That is a nice addition to the book list. We should talk about Ian Stuart some time. Get Emotion Machines, if you have time to read it. Another great topic for long discussions.

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