Polymath: The Blog for Parents and Educators

Why is it so hard to learn math as a kid? 6 reasons math is so hard

February 04, 2022

Let’s face it. Math is seen as really hard. It’s one of those things that is socially appropriate to say you’re bad at.

Unfortunately, we can’t get away without learning it. So understanding why learning it is so hard is important.

It’s a complex issue with several interconnecting causes. A lot of them boil down to things that make kids not like, or even fear, math, which make it much harder to learn. This is a researched phenomenon known as math anxiety.

Here are 6 reasons we see as contributing to the issue.

1. Right and wrong is scary - fear of failure stops children trying

Most of the time, in math there is an absolute right answer. There are often different ways of getting there, but 7 + 6 will always be 13 (unless you’re a pure mathematician which we won’t get into here).

So, when answering a question, children are either met with success or failure. Contrast this to other disciplines (like reading) where it’s much more common to get something “sort of right”. If children are exposed to too much or too little “failure” when learning math, it leads them to fear failure, and then stop trying altogether.

2. Negativity around math is easily passed down to kids from parents and teachers

It might sound supportive and reassuring to say, when a child is struggling with some math, “it’s okay, some people just don’t have a math brain”. It might feel like it takes the pressure off, but really, it’s just enforcing the idea that a child might be fundamentally bad at math, when there’s no such thing.

3. Historically, the way we’ve been taught math does it no justice - it’s boring! (rote learning primarily)

As math is a very black and white subject with logical and correct answers, historically, it has been taught in a very black and white way. Look at an equation, do the working, figure out the answer.

Adults today can reminisce over lines and lines of equations to answer in the name of practicing.

Rote learning was a very popular way of learning and practicing math, fundamentally it’s an effective way of learning. But it is really boring. If something is boring it’s generally much harder to learn!

4. Children learn at different rates and it’s hard to account for this in the classroom

Classrooms move at their own pace, which is either too fast (too hard) or too slow (too easy) for the majority of students. As a result, children get into a state where they don’t understand the content, or they become disengaged.

Not only this, but kids learn math in different ways. For example, multiplication is sometimes taught as repeated addition, or as grouping. One way to teach a concept may work for one child, but make no sense at all to another.

It’s so difficult to cater for all of these differences in a classroom. Teachers have an almost impossible job.

5. If you miss something, you’re left behind

Math is built on layers upon layers. Subtraction doesn’t make sense without addition. Decimals don’t make sense without fractions. Probability doesn’t make sense without fractions. Algebra doesn’t make sense unless arithmetic is natural.

If you’re a child and you miss one of these building blocks, every subsequent topic doesn’t really make sense. The concepts kind of sink in, so it tends not to get noticed, but reaching true mastery is impossible.

This just exacerbates learning rates, which makes point #4 even trickier.

6. It’s not part of kid’s everyday lives and so they don’t get used to it

Unlike reading and writing, math being used in every day life is much less common. This is surprising seeing as adults use math all the time. It’s just not as common to make it much of a priority in those early years and early education.

This often means when it comes to numbers, and it normally comes later, they are unfamiliar to children. Math is often talked about as another language, and becoming familiar with this language in a casual and easy way makes it less daunting later on.

What do we do about all this?

These issues seem pretty scary. Fortunately, there are solutions to all of these problems. Those are the kinds of things we explore at Celadon. Check out our app and our blog for more ideas.

Polymath is the maths app that teaches at the pace you learn.
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