“I’m Not a Math Person” and Other Lies We Tell

Stop Perpetuating the Myth

I’m back! It’s been a while since I’ve really updated anything on this site, but for good reason—my wife and I just welcomed our first child! So far it’s a wild, awesome, sleepless adventure, and I’m so grateful. As I’m re-entering work mode, he’s already inspiring blog posts: One of the first subjects people talk about with a new baby is “What will he be like when he’s older?” Nothing wrong with wondering what a kid might be good at, but the conversations have reminded me of how often we tell kids what they aren’t good at, sometimes in ways so subtle that we don’t even realize it. Take anyone who’s ever said these words:

I’m not a math person.

Ever heard it? Ever said it about yourself? I count all the variants, too: I’m just not good with numbers. Math was never my strong suit. It doesn’t make sense to me. I’m better with words. I’m all right-brained. I’m so bad at math.

Lies!

Math is thinking logically, abstractly, and spatially. It’s reasoning with quantities, patterns, and cause-and-effect relationships. Humans do these things everyday. Pouring an appropriate quantity of water into a glass without spilling it on the counter is a mathematical process. We don’t consciously think about the size estimation, velocity, and pour angle, but watch a toddler attempt the same task and it’s obvious that a successful glass of water involves learned skill. Not to mention, neurologists tell us that spatial reasoning is a right-brain activity. So guess what, right-brainers? You can do math!

Hold on, say the skeptics. Multivariable calculus is hard. Not everyone is cut out to be a rocket scientist. Some people really are more talented in math than others.

To an extent, I agree—but that’s missing the point. “Rocket scientist” is an absurd standard to measure whether or not someone is “good” at math. We can say a kid is “good” at basketball without expecting him to be a future NBA all-star. For most situations, especially school teams, good means proper shooting form, competent ball handling, and basic situational awareness. By that definition, anyone can be good with a decent coach and a few years of practice.

Math’s the same way—middle and high school standards build on foundational concepts that mainly need practice and self-confidence. Yet for generations, we’ve implied to our students that mathematical reasoning is based on IQ rather than repetition and hard work. Despite study after study proving that there’s no such thing as a predetermined, innate math ability, the myth continues. Perhaps one of the biggest contributing factors is that kids hear adults say these things about themselves. “I can’t do math” is what people say when they’re struggling to divvy up a restaurant bill. Maybe it’s a joke, but kids catch on, and they think there’s this whole category of people who can’t do basic division. Then the first time they see a difficult algebra test, they decide that they must be one of “those” people who just can’t do it.

Change Your Language

  • Instead of saying, “I’m bad at math,” say something like “I need a minute to think about this” or “Let me use my calculator.” Show patience and problem-solving, not defeat.
  • Talk about mathematicians, scientists, and engineers like any other profession. There’s nothing wrong with calling someone brilliant or genius, but don’t inadvertently suggest that people who choose careers in math have some magical ability that others do not. This harms kids who see themselves in the “other” group.

There’s no such thing as a “math person.” Don’t let kids—or yourself—believe the lie.

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Photo by Roman Mager on Unsplash

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