The Glorious Struggle

     Almost every student will struggle in a math course, eventually.  That is the impetus for this message.  While the changing technology of our world is a rationale for developing mathematical skills, I believe there is an even more compelling reason.  Ultimately, math comes easily to no one.  It is the struggle to learn math that offers the most to our kids.  The struggle can be minimized by learning the basics of mathematics first.

     The question is, do our kids really need math?  The standard answer is, yes, look at our changing technological world.  Many students feel that is precisely why they may actually not need math.  Machines can to do it all for them.  And besides, many of them know that they will not become engineers anyway.  The result is that many students complete their math requirements as soon as possible, and opt out of math at the earliest opportunity.

     My goal is to encourage students to continue studying math, especially when it becomes a struggle.  Because, in their struggle to understand, and in the manner in which they meet this struggle, they can learn life skills far removed from the classroom or the engineer’s drawing pad.  Mathematics offers students the opportunity to learn how to work through the struggle; how to bring to it what they have; how to find and use the things they need.  Unfortunately, the struggle is too often misinterpreted, and agony results.

     Struggling in mathematics is not the enemy any more than sweating is the enemy of athletes; it is part of the process, and a clear sign that you are in the game.  Math asks students to think in ways they are not used to thinking; to look at the obvious in ways they’re not accustomed to, and to explore the not so obvious in similar ways.  Much of this will require abstracting and reasoning beyond what they know.  It will also require an honest pursuit; there are no shortcuts.

     All this effort will provide many rewards.  Math does not hide its mysteries; they are there for anyone to find who seeks them.  The rules are the same for all; the inner consistency of mathematics make it possible for kids to enter on any level, and find that the same principles and properties they learned in one grade go along with them to the next and the one after that, and even to the real world.  There are no tricks, no special rules for some and not for others.  Math, by its very nature, is principled.

     Because it is tough, honest, and principled the rewards math offers to those who persist in the struggle go far beyond the concepts that are mastered.  Watch a student who has stuck with the struggle and come to real understanding of a mathematical concept on his own efforts.  He knows what he has done, and he knows that if he can do that, then he can do anything.

     Mathematics doesn’t care about your physical attributes; it is indifferent to your race, gender, religion, and socioeconomic status - anyone can slam-dunk mathematics.  Mathematics is a perfect example of democracy in action; anyone who wants to can wind up on the first string, all he needs to do is stay in the game.  And in this game no one can bench you besides you, yourself.


     The world your child faces is more frightening and competitive than ever.  Success in mathematics is critical for success in public school, college, and careers; for advancement, and for choices.  Conversations with your child about math can become tense, but you, more than any one else, are in a position to help your child engage in the glorious struggle of mathematics.

     You don’t need to fear the struggle; it is an essential and important part of learning mathematics.  If you accept the struggle, your child can too.  If you value the struggle, and can see math as more than just a series of right answers, then your child can approach mathematical learning in a way that will not only make success in mathematics more likely, but carry over to pursuits far beyond the mathematics classroom.

     All students benefit from meeting the struggle that mathematics presents.  But, they first need to know that it is okay to struggle.  You can help us help your children learn math by understanding, valuing, and nurturing the healthy struggle of mathematics.  That doesn’t mean that a student can go directly from arithmetic to calculus.  A healthy struggle occurs when mathematics is taken in the appropriate sequence, and the student has had some success in the prerequisite courses.

     Just as with anything else, those who work the hardest generally enjoy the most success.  It doesn’t mean that they “get it” more easily; it means that they are willing to persevere in the struggle.  You need to let your child know that he is not expected to get it all clearly, the first time.  But, that you do expect him to work to understand, sometime.  If struggling is viewed as undesirable, then just as if sweating were considered undesirable by a basketball player, both would have to tread too carefully to be effective.  Parents encourage responsibility by becoming aware that mathematics is supposed to be a struggle, and help their children by encouraging them to struggle through to understanding.

     The goal is to help children learn how to use what they have to meet the struggle.  When students hit the wall and are certain they cannot make it, parents can help them believe and discover that they can.  Your children have enough of what they need to make it if you help them believe they can.

     Answers to seemingly insurmountable problems may be as close as your child’s backpack.  When you are helping him when he struggles check notes, textbooks, and past assignments for help.  What a valuable lesson it is for kids to discover that answers come from reading, thinking, and struggling, not from magic.

     We are depending on you to understand the value of homework and the role it plays in your child’s learning.  We need you to guide, model, and encourage your child to do more than just get the homework done.  Homework belongs to the students and they can esteem it as they do other things of value.  They can feel pride and confidence that it is significant, even when understanding is slow in coming.

     More and more universities are passing over under-challenged high achievers, including valedictorians, in favor of students who earned lower grades in more demanding courses.  Grades and tests should not be the only major focus in mathematics.  That tactic can make it seem that the only thing that matters is the outcome, and that the quest has no value.  Unfortunately, our sports stars make it seem too easy to slam-dunk, pass for a T.D., perform an elegant maneuver on ice, or sink an eagle putt.  That’s because most of the struggle happens on the practice fields, but kids only get to see the final exams.  No one would pay to watch all of the repetitious, daily struggles; we want to see the results.


     Learning mathematics is a struggle at some level for all of us.  Rather than seeing this struggle as something to avoid, we can see the struggle of mathematics as one of the most valuable things offered to students.  The manner in which they meet this struggle will teach them lessons that extend far beyond the classroom.  From it they can learn in a safe and structured environment how to meet challenges through their own efforts; how to own and manage the challenges presented to them.  Regardless of their perceived aptitudes or gifts in mathematics they can learn that they have within themselves what they need to meet this challenge.

     Parents can help by understanding the value in the struggle that lets them encourage their children to meet the challenge, rather than fear it or avoid it.  You will be relieved to discover your children can be successful in mathematics even if you, yourself, never quite “got it.”

     Children learn many things in school, beyond the factual information imparted.  From their experiences they generalize the learning to encompass not just what they have learned, but how they have learned.  Life will present them with difficult struggles even as we wish it wouldn’t.  Maneuvering through struggles in math young people learn how to meet challenges for which there is no textbook, no teacher, and no shortcut.  How they approach the struggle of math will affect how they approach the struggles they will encounter in life.  The opportunity for success begins when the struggle begins; there is glory in the struggle.

This material is from NAASP Bulletin, 2/97
It is original material written by Suzanne Sutton

    Please click the following link for more about my math teaching philosophy:Math teaching

2 years of Algebra 1 is significantly better than the traditional 1 year that is dedicated to this course in most other schools.