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22 July 2013

Math Paranoia and life lessons...

"Sir, you have to appreciate that we are not as good at Math as the Engineers", said Abhinandan

Back in the late 1990s, I used to teach Operations and Quantitative analysis in a Business Management School in Bangalore. The student profile in the class comprised of few Engineers and quite a number of Non-engineers.

As things have it, both the above subjects are heavy on Math. I used to take my role as a faculty very seriously and was quite demanding on the students when it comes to the unit tests and class exams. The engineers, by virtue of their training, used to complete the sums quicker than most of the non-engineering students. 

Once I was asking the students to complete sums quickly, and Abhinandan, one of the sharper students in my class, responded thus.

"Sir, you have to appreciate that we are not as good at Math as Engineers". 

I could not understand this logic. What is the relationship between being Engineer and doing Math quickly/? Granted that engineers have had to do more Math during their graduate classes, but that is just the nature of the beast. I used to feel that the problem in this case was in the mind than anything else. 

"You are confusing cause and effect," I remember telling the students, "what happens is this. Unfortunately in India engineering is given too much of importance. For most of us, there is only one window of opportunity to get into Engineering and that is by doing well in Class 12."

"If we don't study well in class 12, we don't get into engineering, and that is where the problem starts.", I said.

"If, after class 12, you do not get into engineering, the society will give you a lot of negative feedback in the form of comments and sympathetic expressions and even expressions of dismay and horror (What happened to you? Why you got poor marks? What are you going to do now? !!). At that young and impressionable age, especially when you are emotionally vulnerable, you tend to internalize these comments and decide that you are not good. Since it hurts you to admit that you are not good, you tend to rationalize it by saying that you are not good at Math and you strive to make sure that that is the case. You run away from Math." I paused.

"If you analyse the sequence of activities, you will find that the first link in the chain is that you did not study well in class 12. So how are you going to handle it?" I asked

"You have two options." I continued without waiting for an answer. "One, you can continue running away from Math. That will be a terrible choice since you will become a better manager if you know your math. The other option is to cut out all the clutter and realize that the root cause was that you did not study will in class 12. Once you study well not, you will start doing well.", I waited for some reaction to see if I was getting through. 

The students were listening with rapt attention. I thought I was making progress.

"No one is born disliking math, the dislike is a assumption. If can be assumed, it can be changed by changing your assumptions" I said.

"Likewise, there are many assumptions that we carry from childhood, which can hold back our performance. These are instilled in you by the verbal and non-verbal communications of the adults around you, like your parents, your teachers etc. You are careless, you are naughty, you are dumb, you are not worth anything...Since these are all comments from the 'All knowing' adults, you assumed that their comments are true, and you strived to prove them correct. Now that you are an adult, you need to validate if these stereotypes about you are correct. If they are correct, you must take action to change them. If they are not (correct), you must simply ignore them"

"That is called 'Growing Up' ", I concluded.

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