Making Math Easy (or hard)

She passed all the GED tests except math. Downcast and nervous, she related a sad tale of multiple GED writes, up-grading courses and private tutors, as well as several popular math texts. None of it seemed to work. "So now I'm here," she said. Adding, "I don't know my times tables."

I didn't know what to say, so I asked, "Do you know 3 times 5?"


"Yes! Do you know 6 times 7?"


"Um... yes. What parts of your times don't you know?"

"Well, my eights, for example."

"Do you know 8 times 5?"


"What about 5 times 8?"


"Yep. What about 6 times 8?"

*thinks for a second* "Forty-eight?"

"Yep. Was there something else you didn't know?"

She laughed then, and appeared relieved. I was still a little puzzled.

"Well," I said, "I don't want to sound flippant, but I think you can learn math. I mean, in some ways it's much easier than learning grammar or social studies."


"Oh, yes. All you need is information. Once you know how to change a fraction to a percent, it always works the same way. Spelling isn't like that - it has all kinds of exceptions. There aren't many exceptions in math."

"Really?" She repeated. "Because, all my other teachers said math was the hardest."

Idiots. Of course she thought math was hard. Wonder if they told her anything useful...

Later, we're doing geometry - puzzling out angles (which, after all, is only adding and subtracting). I notice that when she subtracts, say, 165 from 180, she gets 115. When she subtracts 120 from 180 she gets 160. Every time I point this out, she sees it and corrects, but the error keeps popping up.

Finally, I point out that she can use adding to double check her subtraction.

"What? What do you mean?"

"Look," I say, demonstrating. "Suppose I put down 8 minus 6 and I get 2. Now, if I add 2 back on to the 6, I should end up with 8."

"What? I never knew that! Does that happen every time?"

"Yep. If it doesn't add up, you've made a mistake."

"Wow. That's easy."

"So, if you have 180 and you subtract 150 and you get 130..."

"...then, I see right away that 130 and 150 is going to be too big! It's so easy."

Yes it is.

Unless, of course, your teachers are busy telling you how hard it all is.


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