I suspect we've all seen My sister absolutely refuses to learn math by now - it's lodged at the top of the Stack Exchange hot questions list, it's been tweeted, it's got 27k views and hundreds of votes, etc etc.

But what I'm not clear on is whether it's on topic.

In the on-topic-ness FAQ, it's not in any of the off-topic groups, BUT also not in any of the on-topic groups. I'm inclined to consider this makes it off topic, but I see it only stayed closed for four hours after it was for that reason closed, suggesting that there is significant disagreement.

Personally I could see it perhaps falling under "Understanding mathematical concepts and theorems", but only if it was the learner coming here to ask for help. The question as it stands is a teaching question, and therefore more suited to the (currently still in Area 51) sites Education or (if relevant, which I think it might be) Homeschooling. The question's own tl;dr asks quite explicitly How do you teach..; and indeed not even "how do you teach [mathematical concept]" but rather "how do you teach someone who doesn't want to learn". This isn't about math. Relevant comments and answers would be respectively about the teaching relationship, and pedagogy in general.

Bearing in mind that popularity alone is not considered a sufficient reason for a post's existence at a Stack Exchange site, why is this one still here?

I did flag to this effect, which was marked helpful, but I want to know if/why this is considered an appropriate question for MSE

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Historically, math.SE has always had a soft spot for pedagogy questions. Nevertheless, it might indeed be time to review if we still want questions like these. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 12, 2013 at 9:07
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ I had the very same thought when I saw the question. I refused to contribute to the effect by adding an answer. Unfortunately, I have been on the page for the past four hours, commenting and replying. I don't really think these questions are such a good idea, as they draw interest, not to mention vitality and energy (mine!) from the rest of Math SE. They are also unanswerable, and likely to provoke endless debate, just as this one has done. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 12, 2013 at 10:25
  • 9
    $\begingroup$ Such questions are perhaps borderline, but they’re a minuscule fraction of the total. Unless that changes, which seems unlikely, it’s a waste of time and energy to worry or complain about them, serving no useful purpose. Relevant answers are obviously about both teaching and mathematics; the two are inseparably mixed in this question. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 12, 2013 at 10:25
  • $\begingroup$ If we allow questions like the one referenced here, it doesn't seem fair to close something like this math.stackexchange.com/questions/400535/… though. Despite being a little silly, it was fun, and gave opportunity to show fluency with and flexibility of mathematical notation. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 12, 2013 at 10:27
  • $\begingroup$ No, I'm sorry. I just read the comments on the original question, regarding 3 and pi. While the answers were fun, the question didn't make much sense. Moderators made the correct decision in closing that question, I must regretfully concede. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 12, 2013 at 10:31
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @FeralOink: This one does not appear to have provoked endless debate. Rather, it has stimulated quite a few good to decent suggestions and a moderate amount of what I consider fairly irrelevant but harmless chaff. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 12, 2013 at 10:31
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ @Brian They happen to be among the minuscule fraction of questions that tend to radiate over the SE network and the internet, and thus have heavy influence on the image of MSE to the outside world. Since this image is skewed from what MSE is actually about, some effort to correct this discrepancy is IMO certainly warranted. $\endgroup$
    – Lord_Farin
    Commented Jun 12, 2013 at 10:32
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Lord_Farin: I remain to be convinced that MSE has much of an image at all outside of SE and MO. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 12, 2013 at 10:34
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @FeralOink: shudder Better you than I! :-) $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 12, 2013 at 10:34
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @BrianM.Scott MSE DOES have an image, and impact, outside of SE and MO! Much more than you realize! Google and Microsoft are very aware of SO, though maybe less so of MSE. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 12, 2013 at 10:36
  • 24
    $\begingroup$ Today, a first-time visitor to Math.SE will be shown following questions, to tell the visitor what this site is about: My sister refuses to learn math, My son's Sum of Some is beautiful, surface area of a normal chicken egg, What is −i exactly?, Which one is bigger: 35,043×25,430 or 35,430×25,043?, Theorems' names that don't credit the right people, Why is 987654321/123456789 = 8.0000000729?, Is there a great mathematical example for a 12-year-old?, What is a proof?, If $n^2$ is even, then $n$ is even, Why do the French count so strangely?... sigh $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 12, 2013 at 11:52
  • 6
    $\begingroup$ (To clarify: above I listed top questions on the front page as it shown to first-time visitors, in the order the questions appeared.) $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 12, 2013 at 11:58
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ @J.M. Screenshot here. To be fair, the list of questions is preceded on the screen by the most popular tags. They will tell the visitor that the site is not all about children's math experiences: there's some calculus and linear algebra homework, too. Sweet. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 12, 2013 at 14:05
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @user79365, I wasn't expecting you to indulge me, but thanks. :D Daamn... the "hot questions only" might work for SO, but it's certainly not a good fit here. (And now I see that KCd in another thread had a similar complaint.) On the brighter side, at least this "feature" wasn't rolled out during the time of the Batman question... $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 12, 2013 at 14:10
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ My opinion is this: There is nothing wrong with this question. Rather, the discussion should be that there are so many soft questions going about and what should be done about this. I do not think this specific question should be closed because it has generated so much interest - the community decides what is appropriate, and the community has chosen! However, I think we should be wary of soft questions, and I maybe wonder if we should try to nip them in the bud more often......... $\endgroup$
    – user1729
    Commented Jun 12, 2013 at 16:18

1 Answer 1


I think it's on topic. The question is about how to teach mathematics to a student lacking motivation. I don't think that this is the same, as you suggest, as how to teach to someone who doesn't want to learn in general.

Mathematics admits (and, in my opinion, requires) a different pedagogy than other subjects. This is due, among other things, to the cumulative nature of the material $-$ an issue mentioned explicitly in the question. As such the discussion is specific to mathematics, which makes it on topic.

Furthermore, mathematicians can be very opinionated about how math should be taught, so as a place where the general public can interface with advanced students of mathematics, I consider Math StackExchange to be the perfect venue for this type of discussion.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ It’s also worth pointing out that the popularity of the question and consequent volume of answers and discussion mean that the topic has been pretty thoroughly addressed, and the general nature of the topic means that much of the discussion is quite widely applicable. I seriously question the value of canonical answers to purely mathematical questions, since from the student’s point of view the devil is very often in the specific details, but I think that for the foreseeable future this question now has something akin to a canonical answer that is genuinely useful. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 12, 2013 at 19:47

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .