“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

An Open Letter to My Students

From Your English Teacher

Dear students,

Some distressing news has come to my attention, and I must address it immediately. Apparently a rumor is now circulating our school community that I am, in fact, a “cool” teacher. I assure you—and those of you who’ve known my bad jokes and insistence that we always finish the lesson will heartily agree—that nothing could be further from the truth. Allow me to set the record straight: I may be friendly, but I am not your friend.

You see, friends will invite you to parties, show sympathy when you’re sick, and accept your shy moments when you don’t want to share. They will forgive your dumb decisions and random class outbursts; they will supply you with answers on the homework you forgot about and shrug it off when you turn it in late. A good friend will help you, rescue you, or perhaps even lie for you to get you out of trouble.

I will not.

No, I will ignore your headaches and stomachaches and call on you anyway. Keep your hands down and your heads on your desks—I will call on you anyway. Save your “I don’t know” unless you want to add yet. I will demand your respect for me and for others; I will require your effort on every assignment. Oh, and when you misbehave and I speak to your parents, I will throw you under the bus every time. Count on it.

Such harshness, however, is not without reason. I’m a little ahead of you in life, and that gives me some perspective. I need more from you than you currently give, and, trust me, you need it too. You might think you’ll be okay as long as you do your best—maybe someone has even told you that—but you won’t be. The problem with do your best, dear students, is that you have no idea what it means.

Right now, you think your best is just showing up on time and following directions. As long as you’re ahead of some peers, there’s nothing to worry about. You think your best is a five-paragraph essay, double spaced with a flashy title and word choices like mirthful and astute. You say your best is a 5/5 on participation, and you’re pleased with an A on your vocab quiz. Your best is meeting the standards; your best is fitting the mold.

It’s not.

Your best, my students, means taking a risk; your best goes beyond the horizon. My job is to push you when you’d rather be pulled. My job is to stoke the fire of your ideas that don’t quite fit on the page, to give you voice beyond the expected response, to help you read with questions and speak with answers, to develop in you a hunger for knowledge that a lifetime of learning could never satisfy. When someday you graduate from one challenge and move on to the next, when you create with your gifts and serve with your talents, when you make your marks on the world and see what still can be and not just what is, that is your best. Then I will have done my job.

I set the bar higher than you’d set if for yourselves because I know one day you’ll jump without it, and I want you to soar. So yes, you must use complete sentences, and no, we are not watching a movie today. I am the uncool teacher because you are more valuable than you know and more capable than you believe.

So ignore the rumors because yes, you do have homework.

Sincerely,

-Mr. Leonard

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