“I’m just not a math person.” We hear it all the time. I’ve recognised this phrase from my very own mouth. Because we believe that the idea of “math people” is the most self-destructive idea in our generation today. The truth is, you probably are a ‘math person’, and by thinking otherwise, you are possibly hindering your own career. Worse, you may be helping to perpetuate a malicious myth that is harming ‘underprivileged’ children—the myth of an
inborn genetic mathematic ability.
Student achievement has long been the focus of teachers and educators around the world. Identifying specific factors that contribute to student achievement can assist educators in creating and utilising effective teaching methods which will positively enhance the experience students have in academic settings. Is math ability genetic? Sure, to an extent. Alan Turing, most famously known for devising the Enigma machine during the second world war—deriving a number of techniques for speeding the breaking of German ciphers, including improvements to the prewar Polish bombe method, an electromechanical machine that could find settings for the Enigma machine. His manifestations and creations are sought out and trusted above one’s
own logical expectations. Essentially none of us could ever be as good at math as Alan Turing, no matter how hard we tried or how well we were taught. But here’s the thing: We don’t have to! For high school math, inborn talent is just much less significant than hard work, preparation, and self-confidence.
How do we know this? As professors, teaching assistants, and private tutors. Again and again, we have seen the following pattern repeat itself:
- Different kids with different levels of preparation come into a math class. Some of these kids have parents who have drilled them on the ideals of math from a young age, while others never had that kind of parental input.a
- On the first few tests, the well-prepared kids get perfect scores, while the unprepared kids get only what they could figure out by winging it—maybe 80 or 85%, a solid B.
- The unprepared kids, not realising that the top scorers were well-prepared, assume that genetic ability was what determined the performance differences. Deciding that they “just aren’t math people,” they don’t try hard in future classes, and fall further behind.
- The well-prepared kids, not realising that the B students were simply unprepared, assume that they are “math people,” and work hard in the future, cementing their advantage.
Thus, people’s belief that math ability can’t change becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The idea that math ability is mostly genetic is one dark facet of a larger fallacy that intelligence is mostly genetic. Academic psychology journals are well stocked with papers studying the world view that lies behind the kind of self-fulfilling prophecy I just described. A body of research on conceptions of ability has shown two orientations toward ability. Students with an Incremental framework believe ability (intelligence) to be malleable, a quality that increases with effort. Students with an Entity framework believe the ability to be nonmalleable, a fixed quality of self that does not increase with effort. —Purdue University psychologist Patricia Linehan.
In psychology, the entity/incremental motivational framework is derived from a much a larger study done by Carol Dweck, Professor of Psychology at Columbia University. Over many decades she has developed a highly influential theory of student motivation building on the work of others, notably on ‘attribution theory’ – what we attribute for our failures and
successes.There are two different views of intelligence: the entity motivational framework in which pupils believe that intelligence is a genetic attribute that is fixed and unable to changeKnown as Fixed Mindset. and the incremental motivational framework in which students
believe intelligence is a malleable attribute that is able to change through their own effort and
Psychologists Lisa Blackwell, Kali Trzesniewski, and Carol Dweck presented these
alternatives to determine people’s beliefs about intelligence. The results? Convincing students
that they could make themselves smarter by hard work led them to work harder and get
higher grades. The intervention had the biggest effect for students who started out believing
intelligence was genetic.
For almost everyone, believing that you were born dumb—and are doomed to stay that
way—is believing a lie.
So why do we put such an importance on math? For one thing, math skills are
imperative and a pre-requisite for landing a decent job(or most jobs, if not all) these days—so
believing you can’t learn math is especially tormenting. A great deal of research has shown
that technical skills in areas like software are increasingly making the difference between
developed nation such as America’s upper middle class and its working class. While I don’t
think education is a cure-all for inequality, I definitely believe that in an increasingly
automated workplace, people who give up on math are selling themselves short.
Too many students go through life terrified of equations and mathematical symbols. We
think what many of them are afraid of is “proving” themselves to be genetically inferior by
failing to instantly comprehend the equations (when, of course, in reality, even a math
professor would have to read closely). So they recoil from anything that looks like math,
protesting: “I’m not a math person.” And so they exclude themselves from quite a few
lucrative career opportunities. This has to stop
One way is to copy the approach of eat Asian methodologies. In Intelligence and How to
Get It, Nisbett describes how the educational systems of East Asian countries focus more on
perseverance than on genetically inborn talent:
- Persistence in the face of failure is very much part of the Asian tradition of self-improvement. And are accustomed to criticism in the service of self-improvement in
situations where Westerners avoid it or resent it.”
- There is little to no need to read this book to find out that intelligence and
intellectual accomplishment are high yieldings. Confucius set that matter straight twenty-five hundred years ago.”
- The average Japanese high school student studies for 3 hours on weekdays and 4-6
hours on weekends. Making it a daily routine and adapting their focus to last that long.
Math education, we believe, is just the most glaring area of a slow and worrying shift.
We see our nation, my peers moving away from a culture of hard work toward a culture of
belief in genetic determinism. In the debate between “nature vs. nurture,” a critical third
element—personal perseverance and effort—seems to have been sidelined. We have to bring
it back, and I think that math is the best place to start. 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.