“I can’t do math!”

In its essence this is a familiar story, but it bears reexamination. We’ll end with the Indian girl who gave up on math at age 15, but we start with the observation that American and Indian kids alike classify themselves and their classmates into those who “can do” math and those who “can’t do” math. As the article in the link points out, even parents do likewise:

Teachers told stories of how some parents would say “I was never a math person” or “I was never good at math,” almost as if they were making excuses for why their child was struggling in math. A recent blog by Sarah D. Sparks titled “How Parents Contribute to Math Anxiety” for Education Week discusses how parents may hinder their child’s progress in math, simply by sharing their own anxiety around solving math problems.

This absolutely rings true. But I’m not so sanguine about the idea that there’s an easy fix. It’s particularly difficult to educate the parents.

A similar, but much more nuanced article observes that to some extent math ability is genetic (like musical ability and athletic ability, but no one seems to think that excellence in those fields can be achieved without hard work, regardless of your ability):

Is math ability genetic? Sure, to some degree…. Essentially none of us could ever be as good at math as Terence Tao, 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 important than hard work, preparation, and self-confidence.

More nuanced, as I say. Yes, hard work is not enough in order to achieve the highest levels of math success…but it is enough for ordinary achievements. This is true in music and sports as well, where you’re not going to join the NBA or the Boston Symphony without extreme talent, no matter how hard you work, but you can still be a successful athlete or musician in high school. Read the article the link for much more useful detail.

Finally, a story from NPR about a 15-year-old girl from India who gave up on math:

I didn’t care what my parents were going to tell others. I was just 15. A teenager doesn’t typically think about the ramifications of a decision. All I knew was that I wanted to be a journalist, and neither science nor math had anything to do with it — as far as I could see. I loved writing and taking pictures. The idea of studying literature, philosophy and psychology was a dream. Math gave me nightmares.

Fortunately American students don’t usually have the option of dropping math at 15. In Massachusetts high schools, at any rate, four years of math are required. That won’t stop kids or their parents from classifying people into those who can and can’t do math, but at least it gives a few more years to change one’s mind. We need to open doors, not close them.

Categories: Math, Teaching & Learning