We’ve all said it. We hear other parents say it. We joke and complain on social media about common core and new math. We flaunt our lack of arithmetic fluency like a rite of adulthood and groan collectively over our kids’ homework. Sure, having something to commiserate about unites us, but we need to stop saying “I’m not good at math.” While we may believe it (and have personal fails to back it up), saying we’re not good at math is arguably the most damaging self-fulfilling prophecy in America today.
That may sound overdramatic, considering the state of national affairs, but hear me out: By saying we aren’t good at math, we are conceding any number of things about our gender, our culture, our values, and even our work ethic. By saying we aren’t good at math, we are abdicating its importance in our lives, we are setting a poor example for our children – both daughters and sons—who are opting out of STEM courses at alarming rates, and we are preserving the false notion that math skills are intrinsic and cannot be learned. Worst of all, by saying we aren’t good at math, we are starting to believe it, as is evident in the public’s tenor surrounding the discipline and our increasing dependence on technology for. In adult competency studies, Americans scored lowest in the developed world in numeracy, digital problem-solving, and information-processing – which are considered basic skills in a modern economy.
Since the dawn of formal education, it has been believed that math aptitude is a genetic trait, one you are either born with or not, and therefore, a person’s success in math-related subjects is predetermined. This belief, along with stereotypes that males are better at math than females, all Asians are good at math, and privileged families hold exclusivity to the numbers gene – has been perpetuated by educators and parents, alike, even though study after study debunks this theory as nonsense. This common misconception not only precludes learning, it cripples it. Math, like any other subject, is skill-based, and the proclivity to understanding number sentences is every bit as basic (if not more) as understanding words.
It is hypothesized that humans are born with an innate sense of numbers, which becomes the foundation for higher-level math understanding. Obviously, babies don’t have the language to count, but they appear to be able to measure groups of objects and grasp the “more than/less than/equal to” concept. As children grow and acquire the symbolic system for representing value (Arabic numerals), they are building upon this primitive number sense. They learn to comprehend number sentences, or equations, just as they learn that letters form words, which in turn represent objects and thoughts. From a clinical standpoint, early math and reading skills share the same real estate in the brain, both require practice and repetition, and both compound small pieces of information into a larger context. But you never hear people boast about not being good at reading, like they do with math. Why is it we treat the two subjects so differently?
Learning is a finicky business, enmeshed as it is with social development and trends in education. Some children respond favorably to traditional methods of instruction, e.g., visual aids or hands-on techniques, while others struggle to grasp the concept regardless of how it’s presented. Schools have made a concerted effort in recent years to accommodate an array of learning styles, and test scores reflect these innovations, but the prejudice against math persists. Somewhere between the lower elementary grades and middle school, kids lose their math momentum and self-directed progress tapers off. By high school, guidance counselors report that once students satisfy the minimum requirements for graduation, most will drop math instruction.
Unlike subjects like science, language arts, or social studies, where information is compartmentalized into unit topics, math is cumulative. You can’t miss a week and jump back in at the start of the next chapter without falling behind. Math takes daily practice and discipline – like learning a musical instrument or a sport – and the complexity of branches like algebra or geometry demands a commitment. It is no surprise that as kids get older, and other interests compete for their time and attention, math loses its appeal. Add to that an outspoken generation of parents who belittle its value by saying, “I hate math and I turned out fine,” and it becomes even more tempting to abandon it.
The truth is, most of us aren’t bad at math; we’re simply rusty or plain old lazy. Humans, after all, are programmed to follow the path of least resistance. Why would we spend time and risk inaccuracies calculating a lengthy multiplication problem when we could get the answer instantly from our phones? I don’t mean to suggest we rebuff technology, but at the same time, we shouldn’t disparage the very thing that brought technology to us. Math will always be a hard sell, but if we expect to tackle pressing issues like climate change, dwindling natural resources, and expanding population, we need people who excel in numbers. Saying we aren’t good at math erodes any remaining confidence, and it gives our kids permission to not be good at it, either – that is not an option we can afford to take.