Hello, reader! If you intend to post a link to this blog on Twitter, be aware that for utterly mysterious reasons, Twitter thinks this blog is spam, and will prevent you from linking to it. Here's a workaround: change the .com in the address to .ca. I call it the "Maple Leaf Loophole." And thanks for sharing!

Saturday, October 15, 2011

You Don't Even Know What Math Is Yet

Alex McFerron:
I tutor mathematics to kids and I can't tell you how many times I hear the words "I'm not good at math". This is from very intelligent kids who aren't out of high school. Honestly, I want to say, you don't even know what math is yet. You don't know the first thing about it or your ability to do it or not do it. I want to tell them that no one is good at math who doesn't work at it. 
I think that what separates math people from non-math people in our culture is that math people continue doing math and don't spend anytime thinking they aren't math people. They just keep going on the journey. The older I get, the more it is obvious that a lot of really capable people quit the journey. I admit, this journey isn't for everyone. Its hard work. It takes focus. You have to want to do it. The financial rewards aren't really there in proportion to the work. But what really hurts me is that there are people who want to do it and quit. They change majors, go home, seek other work all because they have it in their heads that they lack talent and aren't naturals. The profession loses when this happens.
Alex has a unique perspective on Mathematics and I always learn from her insights. Professionally, she's a software engineer, but she is also a math enthusiast and evidently tutors kids as well. I am left wondering as a result of this post, what is our role in promoting the "not a math person" label? And what can we do to entice kids to not quit the journey? I have to think that choosing puzzling but accessible tasks is paramount, but hey I do that, and many of them still check out anyway. What else?


  1. I wish you had put a title on this blog so that I could link to this and carry on a conversation.

  2. Little known fact: you could have clicked on the timestamp.

    But, there, you go, wish granted!

  3. Pretty true stuff here. Even more than the bit about hard work (though it certainly is), Math people have the sense early on that they can figure things out, that they can spend time getting better, and that playing around with stuff helps you do both.

    When kids say "I'm not good at math" they ALWAYS mean math class.

    If only math class was built on the idea that every kid needs to gain personal attachment to the mathematical process and internalize in some way the identity of "mathematician." Maybe then students would have the tiniest shred of understanding as to what math actually is.

    Thanks for sharing.

  4. Have you heard of epigentics (how the environment effects gene expression)? Its quite interesting.

    David Shenk wrote quite a good summary of it

    The faster we ditch the political views of Francis Galton the better

  5. I think the 'I'm not a math person' idea stems from the grading system. Fail someone enough and most will decide to take their talent elsewhere.
    The alternative is to give evaluations only: tell each individual student what they are doing well, where they have created results or improved, and give them a goal that is achievable to grow towards.
    I wish I could figure out how to actually do that in math class teaching, though. It works fantastically in toastmasters.

  6. I teach 8th grade math. My biggest goal for my work is to have students leave my classroom enjoying math and feeling that they are capable of learning math. I start the year with a patterning activity. I'm teaching Algebra 1 so we spend 2 days with Tower of Hanoi puzzles. We then talk about mathematics as the study of patterns. I look every student in the face and tell him/her that s/he sees patterns. S/he is good at math. I then explain that we have all different mathematical backgrounds so we're at different places on the math learning trail, but each and every one of us is good at math. In fact, every human being is good at math - we are pattern makers.

    This theme comes up again and again during the year. I never waver. I use the phrase "smart in math" and I use it often. Some kids fail my class and repeat Algebra in 9th grade. But, as much as possible, they don't feel like they "can't do math". Many come back and visit me and tell me how well their doing in Algebra in 9th grade. They needed more time and more experience. I see a lot of pride in faces during these visits.

    I think if we encouraged math teachers, from kindergarten to 12th grade, to adopt (and truly believe) this, we would go a long way in helping students understand what mathematics is and to feel that they really are good in math.


Hi! I will have to approve this before it shows up. Cuz yo those spammers are crafty like ice is cold.