“I’m just not a maths person.”
We hear it all the time. And we’ve had enough. Because we believe that the idea of “maths people” is the most self-destructive idea in our society today. The truth is, you probably are a maths 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 maths ability.
Is maths ability genetic? Sure, to some degree. But then, for secondary school maths, inborn talent is much less important than hard work, preparation, and self-confidence.
- Different students with different levels of preparation come into a maths class. Some of these students have parents who have drilled them on maths from a young age, while others never had that kind of parental input.
- On the first few tests, the well-prepared students get perfect scores, while the unprepared ones get only what they could figure out by winging it—maybe less than 50%.
- The unprepared students, not realising that the top scorers were well-prepared, assume that genetic ability was what determined the performance differences. Deciding that they “just aren’t maths people,” they don’t try hard in future classes, and fall further behind.
- The well-prepared students, not realising that the B students were simply unprepared, assume that they are “maths people,” and work hard in the future, cementing their advantage.
Thus, people’s belief that maths ability can’t change becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The “entity orientation” that says “You are smart or not, end of story,” leads to bad outcomes.
Why do we even focus on maths? For one thing, maths skills are increasingly important for getting good jobs these days—so believing you can’t learn maths is especially self-destructive.
The myth that being good at maths comes from some kind of special talent is simply not true for the vast majority of humanity. Being good at maths comes from working hard at it.
Show me a person who is good at maths and 99% of the time, I’ll show you a person who has spent a LOT of time working problems. Being good at maths is a choice you make about how hard you’re going to work at it.