An article at The Atlantic by Miles Kimball and Noah Smith argues against the notion that some people are just not “math people” and I couldn’t agree more:
… we believe that the idea of “math people” is the most self-destructive idea in America today. The truth is, you probably are a math person, and by thinking otherwise, you are possibly hamstringing your own career. Worse, you may be helping to perpetuate a pernicious myth that is harming underprivileged children — the myth of inborn genetic math ability.
So why do we focus on math? For one thing, math skills are increasingly important for getting good jobs these days — so believing you can’t learn math is especially self-destructive. But we also believe that math is the area where America’s “fallacy of inborn ability” is the most entrenched. Math is the great mental bogeyman of an unconfident America. If we can convince you that anyone can learn math, it should be a short step to convincing you that you can learn just about anything, if you work hard enough.
This is precisely what I’ve noticed in nearly a decade of teaching math at the high-school level: The students who say they’re “bad at math” tend to do just fine when they’re given good instruction and practice properly. The students who don’t do well are usually the ones who aren’t trying very hard in the first place.
There are obviously exceptions to that. Some students put in many hours, but they focus on the wrong topics or study the “wrong way.” It’s like saying you read a novel when you really just moved your eyes across the page without taking in very much — it doesn’t count. It’s not their fault, either; they’ve just never been coached on how to study math in a more effective way. As a result, it’s entirely possibly to work your butt off learning the subject and still struggle, it seems, no matter how hard you try.
Some students never grasped the basic ideas that make the more advanced math concepts appear less abstract. If you have battle scars from algebra, then calculus will destroy you. (Spoiler: All teachers blame students’ struggles on their previous teachers.) But for the classes I’ve taught — including some of the classes that students are told they need to know for the future — the self-fulfilling prophecy has held up: If students think they’re not “math people,” they give up a lot more easily than they would otherwise.
There’s also a problem from the other end. When you have students who think they’re really good at math, but it’s only because they know how to use their calculators well and know how to memorize basic skills and formulas, they’re thrown for a loop when you ask them questions that probe their understanding. They think they’re “math people” because they’ve earned high grades, but they really don’t know much about the subject at all. At some point, they hit a wall and their confidence is broken.
This is why one of the big trends in math education lately has been to wean students off of basic regurgitation (“plug and chug”) and off their calculators (to a lesser degree). My tests now include a lot more conceptual questions, short answers, and mental math compared to when I first began teaching. While it takes a little longer to grade, you can really tell who gets it and who just knows how to memorize problems we did in class.
It’s not easy to learn how to think like a mathematician, but once you learn how, it’s a skill that transfers over to so many other areas (and careers). That’s why this is so crucial. As parents, especially, we would do well to not let our kids get away with saying “I’m just not a [subject] person” when a little help could steer them back in the right direction.
All of this, of course, applies to subjects beyond math. But as the authors state, this seems to be the subject where the defeatist attitude seems most pronounced.
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