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Why can’t you get into quantitative disciplines?


Let me illustrate the problem before presenting my case. A new student contacts me with a request for help with their high school maths. They hate maths, always struggle with it, but now they reached a point when they have no idea what is going on in their classroom, and their teacher wants them to quit. Their parents don’t know what to do and are not keen on maths themselves. When I ask the student to describe how they revised in the past, I already know what they are about to say. They went to school, did the required bare minimum, avoided maths at all cost and enjoyed every maths-free break they got. Their heavy dependence on a calculator is the only reason why they survived in the classroom for so long. A few details in the above story, main actors and their honesty might differ; however, this underlying pattern holds for about 90 % of students of any quantitative subject who have ever contacted me.



Most people struggle with quantitative disciplines which is often blamed on the absence of a unique gift – having a mind for numbers. While it is true that these subjects tend to be more abstract, counterintuitive, intimidating, and each student has a different processing speed and a unique pattern of learning, we often ignore the most critical variable: consistent minimal required exposure. If this is accounted for, the answer to the above questions becomes self-evident. Most people are too inconsistent and have chronically low active contact with numbers.



Is the education system consistent enough, and does it provide children with this minimum? A school year has roughly 40 weeks or 200 days in most countries and children tend to have 4 to 5 periods of numeracy per week plus some homework. An upper bound estimate is about 300 hours per year, but more realistically about a half of this time might be spent with actual practice. This estimate implies that children spend about 2 % of their year doing maths which seems reasonable. However, on a closer look, we can see that only about 55 % of the days contain any active practice, while the remaining 45 % have probably no numeracy at all. In other words, children exercise their skills for half a year, and then they have the other half to forget most of what they have learnt. If we looked even closer, the numbers become even worse, and neither consistency nor the minimum required hours are achieved.






If we put this in a context, how many hours per day are children exposed to a language? The exposure starts even before they are born, and then they spend an increasingly large portion of their day actively and passively using language while they listen, watch, speak, write and read. It is not an overstatement to say that humans spend most of their life using language to interact with the world around them and master the required skills in the process. Considering this fact, is it so surprising that everyone finds the non-quantitative disciplines much more accessible than the alien numerical ones that they directly see only at school?



Nobody is surprised by trivial facts such as babies cannot immediately walk upright, they need weeks of trial and error to learn it; toddlers cannot instantly speak, they require months to master a sentence; everyone is born illiterate, and we need years of consistent practice to change this; but when it comes to numeracy, many seems to think this pattern breaks down and a few minutes here and there in the school will cut it. If this low exposure is not enough, you are not a maths type, and you need to rationalize that you did all you could, and the failure was inevitable. Give up now as the quants are only for the chosen few.



This myth just does not want to die, and people keep believing in it even if it gets debunked thousand times every single day. Dyscalculia is a real problem, and we still have to figure out how to adapt the teaching of numeracy so that nobody is left out. However, this genuinely disadvantaged group is tiny. Most people only need to follow a consistent schedule, work independently with the free resources available and ask for a bit of help as soon as they get stuck and cannot help themselves. Numeracy is just a skill, and we acquire it the same way as all other skills. Almost everyone who wants to learn it can do so. Everyone can do much better and pass all lower-level exams in high school and university.

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