I Can’t Do Math…or Can I?

2000px Algebraic equation notation.svg  - I Can't Do Math...or Can I?

Math is not my subject.

In high school, my average in math was lowest, although surprisingly, my highest average was in the sciences. I “got” physics, in spite of the math, because there, the math made sense. In the abstract, it sent my brain reeling. More than once, my mother had to call my math teachers to say that I was too sick with anxiety even to come into to school to take a regular unit test. Not even a midterm or final. Just a plain old test. And I made myself sick over it.

Flash forward however many years later, and now I have students tell me all the time, “I’m not a math person.” I totally get where they are coming from.

So does an article I recently discovered in The Atlantic, entitled, “The Myth of ‘I’m Bad at Math.’” However, this article does not want to coddle these students who sing this refrain. Instead, Miles Kimball and Noah Smith, the article’s authors, claim that this myth is perhaps one of the most dangerous in America. Hyperbole, perhaps, but not all that far off target. They argue that this idea of “not being a math person” may possibly not only ruin a child’s future career chances but also help “to perpetuate a pernicious myth that is harming underprivileged children—the myth of inborn genetic math ability” (¶ 2).

Even scarier is that many people actually feel like this is something to brag about. Another article in The Atlantic, about teaching math to people who say that they hate it, states the following:

Twelve years of compulsory education in mathematics leaves us with a populace that is proud to announce they cannot balance their checkbook, when they would never share that they were illiterate. What we are doing—and the way we are doing it—results in an enormous sector of the population that hates mathematics. The current system disenfranchises so many students. (¶ 5)

This article, written by Jessica Lahey, describes an experimental course in which students receive an experiential course in math—in making math with their hands, rather than learning it via lectures. One exercise is to fold and cut paper to create a scalene triangle—a triangle that has three different length sides. According to Lahey, students were so engaged in the origami-like project that when the professor offered to give them a hint, they shouted him down, because they were so enjoyably engaged in the struggle.

In the meantime, what of the students Kimball and Smith describe? Many of these are high school students or younger, but still formulating this self-identity of “a person who can’t do math.” The authors argue that high school math is more a question of hard work than inborn ability, but because of these beliefs, those who believe they are “math people” work harder, and those who believe they aren’t usually give up, creating self-fulfilling prophecies.

Kimball and Smith cite the work of the psychologists Lisa Blackwell, Kali Trzesniewski, and Carol Dweck who tested two different beliefs: “(1) You have a certain amount of intelligence, and you really can’t do much to change it [and] (2) You can always greatly change how intelligent you are” (¶ 11). They found students who believed the latter—perhaps obviously—worked harder and did better in their studies. What was not so obviously, according to Kimball and Smith, who in turn recounted the tale of this research from the pages of Richard Nisbett’s book Intelligence and How to Get It:

Dweck and her colleagues then tried to convince a group of poor minority junior high school students that intelligence is highly malleable and can be developed by hard work…that learning changes the brain by forming new…connections and that students are in charge of this change process. (¶ 13)

According to the book and this article, these students also worked harder and got higher grades, even if they originally believed that intelligence was genetic.

As existential practitioners, we know how powerful—and potentially damaging—labels can be. Diagnostic labels can follow a person around for a lifetime, and as we saw with math ability, influence behavior. Does the belief that you are a depressed person lead you to depression? Perhaps not, but as The Onion lampooned, it is hard to give up something that you believe is so intrinsic to your identity. What would it mean to a depressed person to give up the “depressed” identity? What would it mean to me to no longer self-identify as a “person who can’t do math”? As I gradually see that I can still do these high school math problems when I teach them (thankfully)—provided that I don’t panic first at the sight of trigonometric functions or calculus formulas—I am learning that my label is malleable, that I am (somehow, still, at my age) teachable. And if I am teachable, we are all teachable (by the transitive property of useful labels).

That’s something to be grateful for! Now, if only I could do chemistry…

— Sarah Kass

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