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How to Make “Math People”

A few weeks ago, we shared a New York Times article on our social media channels (you are following us on Twitter and Facebook, aren’t you?) called “No Such Thing as a Math Person.” That’s something we have strong opinions about. In fact, we wrote a related article of our own last year.

Here’s what we said in that 2016 article:

Really, math is just a skill like the other host of skills people learn. It’s like driving a car, baking a cake, or playing video games. You could understand someone saying that they don’t like driving or baking or playing games, but you would never accept the idea that something inside prevents them from doing them well.

All that remains true today.

Girls and Math

In the NYT piece, Dr. Perri Klass discusses specifically how math anxiety manifests in young women. She lists several reasons, and we agree with them all. What really struck us was the way that math anxiety functions as a self-fulfilling prophecy for girls. Trace the root cause to whatever or whenever you want, but this fact remains true: tell girls that they’re not so good at math and they’re usually going to end up not so good at math.

The messages don’t even have to be explicit. When mom helps with English and history homework but blusters and pushes the math over to dad, there’s a message. When girls find that most scientists and engineers are men, there’s a message.

After enough of these messages have been delivered, the kid gets it, and she starts focusing on non-mathematical pursuits. That’s probably why women are so desperately underrepresented in STEM careers.

While those cultural signals may push girls away from math, they’re not the only victims. Plenty of men and boys must deal with math anxiety too.

Is Math Anxiety Randomly Assigned?

Empirically, there’s no such thing as a “math person” or a “non-math person.” I know it can feel that way, but the science just doesn’t back up either of those claims. In fact, lots of kids (and adults) struggle with math despite the fact that the average student is totally capable of learning the mathematical concepts taught in high school. Andrei Cimpian, a New York University psychology professor, insists “there isn’t anything in the curriculum that any typically developing child shouldn’t be able to grasp.”

We’ve helped poor math students become strong math students, so we can get behind the idea that every student is capable, but Cimpian’s insight leaves a huge question unanswered: why are there so many people who feel at odds with math? I mean, they’re everywhere!

“Math anxiety is found across all lines of gender, ethnicity, and educational background,” Klass explains. Like cancer or a heart attack, mathematical incompetence can strike anyone, from the lowest of the low to the highest of the high.

In fact, those who say “I’m just not a math person” are so randomly distributed through society that you’d be forgiven for thinking that math anxiety was genetic or even viral.

But it’s not.

It’s simply the product of sub-optimal math education.

The Big Problem

In her piece, Klass focuses on the gender disparity in school mathematics and STEM careers, but we think there’s an even bigger problem than that. The real problem with math anxiety comes from the way math is communicated in the first place.

After you have arithmetic down pat, mathematics begins to take on a new feel. There’s more creativity. Letters and symbols get thrown into the mix. Lateral thinking becomes important.

When students are not presented these new concepts in a way that makes sense to them, math loses its familiarity. That’s where this widespread math anxiety really comes from.

Unless we want to continue leaving students behind, we need to change the way math is taught. With boys and girls, the answer is to break down mathematical instruction into bite-sized pieces that are light on jargon and mathematical notation. Keep it simple. Emphasize understanding.

That’s what Suzy does in the video below.

Watch to see how she expands each step, fully explaining what she’s doing and how to do it. This is the kind of attention that many students need, especially if they’re already beginning to feel frustrated with math.

Bringing things into focus today pays big dividends for a student down the road. It builds confidence, lays the foundation for future math lessons and opens the world of STEM industries for post-graduate employment.