Learning math builds hard skills. There’s no contest to that. When we asked teachers why have to learn math at NCTM 2016, most responses we received highlighted how doing math helps us to develop abstract and analytical thinking skills. The “hardness” of math – the precision and the fact that there is an exact answer – is a key reason why so many students shy away from the subject.
There are however, plenty of soft skills to be gained when students practice hard math. The NCTM session, “Preparing Students for Their Futures: What Technology Leaders Value in Prospective Employees” featured speakers from top tech companies such as PayPal, Salesforce, and Square. The panelists discussed what their companies look for during the hiring process, and it was evident that many of the soft qualities they brought up are built during the learning process for a subject like math.
- Grit: The tech industry moves at lightning speed. Companies constantly experiment with new strategies, operate under the stress of not knowing when that next round of funding might arrive, or whether people will like and buy their product. To thrive, employees must be comfortable with change and push through in ambiguous or challenging environments. Similarly, by practicing math problems, students learn to persevere despite difficulty and frustration. We discussed grit and cultivating this valuable quality in a previous post.
- Collaboration: The development team codes and executes the design of a product. However, they cannot successfully do so without an understanding of the needs of the customer base, which is the responsibility of the sales and marketing team to communicate to the development team. Similarly, learning and doing math is not a solo endeavor. If students are struggling, they are likely not struggling alone. It’s perfectly normal to ask a teacher or friend for help, to collaborate and exchange ideas, all the while remaining humble during the process.
- Problem-Solving: The PayPal panelist, who formerly worked at Apple, noted that at Apple, the mantra was, “you don’t need all the answers to get started on a problem.” Whether this is an engineering, a marketing, or a design problem, the most important thing is to just get started. Start small, and then you can refine and build on top. Maybe the initial approach was wrong? Teach your students that this is acceptable – it shows that they can view problems from a number of angles and have successfully identified a potential pitfall.
- Giving and Receiving Feedback: People grow attached to their work and have difficulty seeing their own mistakes. The Square panelist described how her company’s developers always review each other’s code before it goes live. This prevents bugs and loopholes. Furthermore, another developer may see an easier way to do things, which streamlines the process. As your students move through practice problems, have them form small groups to review each other’s work. They might spot a mistake, or even better, they might find and learn a new method of solving the same problem.
It is true that hard math skills are indispensable when learning to code. For students interested in software development, employers are more likely to hire a student with a well-balanced set of hard and soft skills over one who is an engineering or coding prodigy. For the creative and more liberal arts-oriented students, showing them that doing math can help build skills that enable them to succeed in any industry can make all the difference.