Two Fathoms Deep and Stuck in Muck

“I suppose you are two fathoms deep in mathematics, and if you are, then God help you. For so am I, only with this difference: I stick fast in the mud at the bottom, and there I shall remain.”

— Charles Darwin
quoted in the Platonic Realms collection

What is it about math that leaves you feeling two fathoms deep and floundering? I’m preparing to teach four math workshops at the Peoria homeschooling convention next month, and I have several topics to discuss that I consider math monsters, based on my own teaching experience and on questions people have asked in earlier workshops. I’d love to have another point of view, however, or several of them.

What math concepts do you and your students have trouble understanding? Please share!

4 thoughts on “Two Fathoms Deep and Stuck in Muck

  1. I suffer from math anxiety. As such, even figuring out the tip on a dinner check will send my head spinning. I’ve learned to adjust, to not spaz out, but it takes concentration. Not on my math, but on my anxiety. When I see math coming, I immediately give myself a pep-talk, and I also try to focus on my breathing.

    Obviously this isn’t a math concept, but a psychological concept that I have trouble understanding, but I thought it might be relevant anyway. 🙂

  2. Thanks for the comment! Math anxiety is tough, especially for parents who want to help their children learn without passing on the fear. One thing that can help, I think, is to make sure that the students thoroughly understand each topic—even if you have to learn alongside them, spending extra time working in a subject you would rather avoid.

    That’s one reason I spend as much time as I can in my workshops showing both how and why the math works. And that’s why I hope to keep adding articles to this blog explaining the reasons behind different math topics. Once students can really understand a topic, they won’t have to panic. They may not like math, but at least they will know they can do it.

    As for calculating a tip… I don’t know who popularized the notion that a 10% tip wasn’t good enough. It’s easy to find 10%, just by moving the decimal point. (For example, 10% of $34.52 would be $3.45, because we drop the last digit.) Anybody can do it. And as prices went up with inflation, that 10% went up just as fast, didn’t it? But nowadays, it has to be 15%—if you leave a 10% tip, you’re a Scrooge. (At least in my area. Is it the same everywhere?) So now we have to go through mental contortions to figure a tip: Move the decimal point, then add on half as much more, and of course it never comes out with easy numbers. Who wants to dig out a calculator just to pay for dinner?

  3. If I could wave my magic wand I’d implant trig functions into my mind. I seem to have forgotten them all and it’s just tedious to memorize all that stuff.

    My first grader is really hung up on dealing with comparatives in word problems. “Mary has 18. John has 12 more than Mary. How many does John have.” Answer will be 12 every time. Doesn’t matter what sorts of concrete objects I demonstrate this with it doesn’t stick. And even if he learns it for that day a week later it’s forgotten,( “more/less than, heavier/lighter than, longer/shorter than.” )

    My older son used to have a LOT of problems with word problems on percentages that change.

  4. Hi Denise,
    I’ve been following your blog for a while, but never left a comment. This is not about your question above, though I could add plenty to the list. I wanted to write and share a couple of posts I have written that you might enjoy. The most recent is on selecting children’s literature for math instruction. I also have a series of thematic book lists for teachers and kids. One is on math and poetry. My class is currently working through understanding the how and why of whole number operations, so that will be my next thematic list.
    Thanks for writing such great entries and always making me think.

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