There’s One Key Difference Between Kids Who Excel at Math and Those Who Don’t
Image Credit: Photo by Jesse K. on Unsplash

There’s One Key Difference Between Kids Who Excel at Math and Those Who Don’t

“I’m just not a math person.”

We hear it all the time. And we’ve had enough. Because we believe that the idea of “math people” is the most self-destructive idea in America today. The truth is, you probably are a math person, and by thinking otherwise, you are possibly hamstringing your own career. Worse, you may be helping to perpetuate a pernicious myth that is harming underprivileged children—the myth of inborn genetic math ability.

Is math ability genetic? Sure, to some degree. Terence Tao, UCLA’s famous virtuoso mathematician, publishes dozens of papers in top journals every year, and is sought out by researchers around the world to help with the hardest parts of their theories. 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.


How do we know this? First of all, both of us have taught math for many years—as professors, teaching assistants, and private tutors. Again and again, we have seen the following pattern repeat itself:

  1. Different kids with different levels of preparation come into a math class. Some of these kids have parents who have drilled them on math from a young age, while others never had that kind of parental input.
  2. 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.
  3. The unprepared kids, not realizing 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.
  4. The well-prepared kids, not realizing 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 we just described. For example, Purdue University psychologist Patricia Linehan writes:

A body of research on conceptions of ability has shown two orientations toward ability. Students with an Incremental orientation believe ability (intelligence) to be malleable, a quality that increases with effort. Students with an Entity orientation believe ability to be nonmalleable, a fixed quality of self that does not increase with effort.

The “entity orientation” that says “You are smart or not, end of story,” leads to bad outcomes—a result that has been confirmed by many other studies. (The relevance for math is shown by researchers at Oklahoma City who recently found that belief in inborn math ability may be responsible for much of the gender gap in mathematics.)

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