“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

Don’t Hate Me

The Pronoun Problem, and Why Anyone Should Care

When we’re young, most of us learn to cover our mouths before we cough, wash our hands before eating dinner, and always refer to ourselves and another person as “that person and I.”

I haven’t done the research, but I’d guess that “and I” is one of the most overcorrected constructions in all of English.

Grandma gave ten dollars each to my brother, my sister, and I.
Mr. Smith asked Johnny and I to lead the presentation1

Are we so afraid of me? An even more perplexing problem is the rampant insertion of myself, perhaps under the mistaken belief that the word is somehow a longer, more formal version of me for use in adult conversation. I hear this one everywhere. Recently, a friend informed me, “Anna and myself are meeting with Kathy on Tuesday.” A coworker instructed a group of us, saying, “Email any questions to Robbie or myself2.”

To clear things up once and for all, here’s the trick: Remove the other person’s name, and see what makes sense. If I meet with Kathy, then Anna and I should meet with Kathy. People can email me, so they can also email Robbie or me. Myself is only ever used as a reflexive object (I see myself in the mirror) or for emphasis (I can do it myself).

What inspired this post, however, is less the modern assault on good grammar and more the question of why anyone should care. With first person pronouns (I, me, myself), we can learn the rules and move on. Death to awkward sentence constructions! Third person pronouns, on the other hand, are a whole lot trickier.

Gender-neutral language is a hot topic in the world right now, and, for English speakers, much of the debate centers on pronouns. Traditionally, he and she were singular while they was plural. Some instances of “singular they” have existed for well over a century: Emily Dickinson used they to agree with anyone back in the 1880s, despite anyone being a singular word (source: Merriam Webster). Most of the time, writers can avoid the potential confusion of these sentences by simply using a plural subject:

Anyone who has their ticket printed can form a line here.
People who have their tickets printed can form a line here.

Related to singular they is a form called nonbinary they, which refers to a person’s intentional use of “they” as a preferred pronoun.

Alex brought his/her book to class.
Alex brought their book to class.

In the first sentence, speakers must decide if Alex is a he or a she, but not so in the second sentence. Numerous alternatives to the singular they (such as ze) have appeared over the years, although none have garnered much traction outside of university settings.

Intriguingly, they might have some historical precedent to survive where other pronouns fail. Seven hundred years ago, thou was a singular second-person pronoun and ye was the plural form. Gradually, the more plural-looking you took over, and it’s since survived as the sole second-person pronoun for any number (y’all notwithstanding).

So should grammarians take a hard line on he/she vs. they? Time will tell, but history suggests a pronoun takeover is possible in the cultural mainstream. Regardless of how society changes language, our grammar can still stand up:

They have knowledge.
The future belongs to them.
They see themselves speaking correctly no matter how society changes.

1. Me is correct here, in case that wasn’t obvious.
2. Names changed to protect the innocent people unknowingly involved in these syntactic horrors.

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