Teaching Math and Science

A few years ago, when teaching in Asia, I heard from students that STEM fields are only for “smart” students, but NOT for the majority who are not “good” enough to study these subjects. This misinformation comes from the low grades in Math or Science students got when they were in high school. I asked my friends: “Why high school math and science are such a difficult subject? Why so many students have low grades in these subjects? Why are so many students afraid of math?

A teacher explained to me that in his country, annual tests were using math subjects with the high index as the measurements of how good the students are. The reason is math is easier to grade with no controversial or bias. Either the result is correct or not so students can pass or fail. I lamented: “That is the archaic concept rooted back in the colonial time where the exam is the method to reduce the number of educated people, make it difficult for them to advance and to select a few for official positions. Why do you still using that concept even today?”

Several teachers told me that in their schools, Science and Math subjects were often taught by teachers who may have nothing to do with these subject. For example, when there is no math teacher available, a literature teacher can be assigned to teach math. In many high schools, the assignment of teachers to teach certain subject was NOT based on their expertise but on who is available. In my opinion, this is a serious mistake for people to teach the subject that they are not qualified or have no interest in. I explained: “If the teacher is not interested in teaching, how could students learn?” A teacher added: “Besides that, we must also follow a rigid curriculum based on the textbooks but many Science textbooks have not been updated for years, so what students learned are already obsolete. That may be the reason that most students are not interested in Science.”

An elementary school teacher explained: “Mathematics is abstract but children cannot see it. They must visualize these concepts to solve the problem. But visualization comes from experience and relating subjects which young children may not have developed yet, so it is difficult to teach math in elementary school. I told her: “Why forcing students to learn abstract concept at an early age? All they need is simple numbering system so they can add, subtract, multiply, and divide. She said: “But that is what the textbook requires and we must teach accordingly.” I lamented: “The rigid system of teaching makes mathematics a difficult and boring subject at an early age. Young Students cannot visualize the abstract concept taught by the teacher so their interest in learning is decreasing and they start to disassociation with the subject. If this disassociation continues to the next levels, these children will hate mathematics. By the time they go to high school, most will afraid of math.”

A teacher told me: “But that is the method that we were taught. We do not know of other ways.” I explained: “There are many good math textbooks available, from elementary to high schools that you can get from the Internet. There are several good Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) in science and math subjects that you can use. Your education system still follows the tradition of rote methodology. It tests students for how much they can memorize on the examination day. Mathematics does not work that way but on logic and logic requires understanding at a deeper level, not on memorization. You cannot teach math like other subjects where students memorize equations and data. If students cannot understand it thoroughly, they cannot solve the problems. Math and Science require illustration with a lot of examples so students can visualize the problems before they can solve it. By purely memorizing abstract concepts and equations, they cannot advance further. Unless your education system leaders recognize this issue and change the method of teaching, from elementary to high school, your students will NOT do well because Math and Science are the foundation of STEM fields and the key to advance in the fourth industrial revolution.”


  • Blogs of Prof. John Vu, Carnegie Mellon University