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You Are Not a “Math Person”

IMG 1374There is no such thing as a “math person”.

Many people have told me they were never good at math but that’s not true. No one is born “bad at math”. And, while some people develop an interest in numbers and logic (I did), no one is born as a math person.

Let’s face it, if you received poor grades in school math classes, the greatest blame should likely go to the way it was taught, not yourself. If you received good grades in school math classes, congratulations. But that still doesn’t mean you were born a “math person”.

The curriculum most students study during their time in K12 starts with helping them build a sense of numbers and how they relate to the world around them. Which is good because everyone needs those skills to be successful at life.

However, as students progress through school math instruction quickly deteriorates into lots of activities involving the manipulation of numbers. Mostly stuff a calculator app on your phone could handle while drawing very little battery power.

For the most part, math instruction at the elementary level is largely designed as a funnel. The goal is to slot students into the mathematics “college track” beginning in middle school for most students. A track that starts with Algebra 1 and terminates (literally and figuratively) with Calculus.

The dirty secret of all this is that very few adults use even a small portion of the math they study in high school, even if they attend college after graduation.

It’s also true that professions employing the mathematical topics taught in high school never use the same approach you were taught. The one where you are presented with a canned problem and expected to recall the correct set of algorithms needed to crank through the numbers (also provided, mostly) to produce one right answer.

In the real world, math is one tool that is pulled out of the box and mixed with others when needed to address the many different aspects of the problems being addressed. More often than not, the actual computations are done by computer, and the most complex issue faced by people is determining whether the results are accurate and relevant.

Oh, and those math problems found out in the non-school world almost never have one right answer, much less one that’s a simple number.

Over my years of teaching, I had many students who earned A’s in my classes and still didn’t like math. They had learned how to play the math game early in their academic careers and often didn’t retain much about what they “learned” when I spoke to them even a few years later.

Early on, I blamed my teaching skills for that lack of “stickiness”. Later, after gaining a better understanding, I realized there was far more to the case than what happened within the walls of my classroom. Although I know my approach to instruction was probably still a factor.

Anyway, before blaming yourself or the genetic make-up of your family for not excelling at math, take a closer look at the disconnect between the subject as you learned it in school and how it’s used in your life.

Maybe if your classes had spent more time on stuff like probability you might not be so quick to buy a lottery ticket. Or buy what someone is trying to feed you in the latest poll.


I’ve used the graphic above several times in rants on this topic, although I’m beginning to think the y-axis should be labeled “algorithmic complexity”, instead of math skills.

5 Comments

  1. Doug Johnson

    I was never a big math person. Never understood why we need to know how to count in base 8, etc. It wasn’t until I took a required post-grad statistics class that I really started to like math since the adjunct prof applied every single concept and skill to the classroom. Every math lesson should be in part of an application the skill being taught. Maybe every lesson, period.

  2. Rogelio del Cano

    This article is both inspiring and reflective of the reality of our education system (that is, based on personal experience). This piece encourages me a lot, especially when you underline that no man is born a math person.

    On the other hand, some schools continue to approach their curricula in the traditional manner. However, with government regulations, schools today define their curricula more practically. Today, these schools use mathematics to resolve real problems related to their students’ future professions. They use technology and fine-tune their techniques to meet the demands of the future.

    I hope everyone is moving in this direction to improve the policies, processes, and people who support these educational institutions.

    Thank you!

  3. Glenn Collyer

    I feel compelled to respond to this utilitarian point-of-view. We are all born different. One of the most meaningful things for an individual to accomplish is the discovery of who one is. It is a journey that can take a lifetime and is central to the value of diversity in a liberal society. That is why the technique of constructivism is so important in education and in a country that aspires to be free. The objectivist / behaviorist method of teaching in general, and in particular with mathematics, runs counter to our innate needs as individuals. Please do stop trying to force everyone into a mold. In our system of education, this succeeds all too often. We need to break free from the way schools covey education. Mathematics conveys the language of logic. This logic has an aesthetic that is just as valuable as a play or a poem. Everyone can discover why they love a language that is the universal logic of a cell phone, a cruise ship, or a simple home. They can appreciate when it is good or not so good. They can absorb it or create it for themselves, or to convey to others. By this means, they will hopefully become delighted with the the graceful luster of a crystal clear mind. That is what everyone can not only use about mathematics, but be delighted in as well. This is how Shakespeare wrote in another language called English – mostly unrecognizable to most as English. Some people will be innately better at mathematics than others and they will become better at it along the way.

  4. Josh Watson

    Here’s a thought — why not teach mathematics couched in computer science principles?

    Here’s another thought — why not teach mathematics couched in physics principles? In kinsethetics? In chemistry?

    Abstracted math is beautiful, don’t get me wrong. I taught math and my undergrad was math. But the rote computation too many schools espouse on the Alegebra, Geometry, Algebra II, Precalc etc track is BORING. Even adults don’t do well long-term with BORING, seemingly useless things they don’t want to do.

    I don’t care if dad and grandpa got their three Rs in school and they think that’s how a good education should look — we’ve changed the world drastically since then. How about some hard work on a math project that is actually interesting, or better yet, that actually benefits the community? Good grief, can we get away from thinking that rote learning of procedures is an absolutely necessary part of education?

  5. Glenn Collyer

    Yes, exactly, Josh Watson. Edward O. Wilson’s book Consilience: Unity of Knowledge. We should not be emphasizing the separation of our arbitrary categories of knowledge as much as we should be emphasizing the unity between them. Abstract mathematics often applies to applied mathematics. Those connections should be made. Likewise, mathematics applies to music, poetry, history, and so on. Take down the artificial barriers of knowledge. Open up opportunities for questions that cross boundaries. All humans are by nature and necessity seekers of knowledge. Even the construct of student to, to teacher, to instruction is in question. It’s frustrating and counter productive when knowledge is corralled into silos. Learning is not boring when it goes with the flow of what humans do naturally. People who through our system find that the most important thing they are learning is that they are not a math person are in danger of learning that they are not much of a person as well.

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