Maybe You Really Aren't Bad at Math
The other day, I caught myself saying in front of the kids, "I always make mistakes at math." Oops. I'm a former teacher and I know better. Plus, it isn't even true. Although I chose to study the humanities, I always scored well on math tests in high school and my verbal and mathematics SAT scores, good enough to get me into an Ivy League school, were perfectly even. Where did I ever get the idea that I was bad at math and why on earth was I communicating it to my kids?
We are a nation of math-doubters. Even as our leaders urge students to look to STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) topics for future career success, you can regularly hear adults say, "I'm really bad at math."
What if, in fact, the vast majority of the math-phobic have underestimated their capacity for math? Consider, instead, a new study that suggests that math incompetence is largely a myth.
Sure, researchers say, there are once-in-a-generation phenoms that are gifted beyond the talents of mere mortals. However, when most adults say they are bad at math, they don't mean that Fermat's Last Theorum eluded them. They mean, instead, that somewhere around high school algebra their grades took a nose dive and they interpreted that as evidence that solving for x would be an eternal mystery for them.
As the parent of very young children, I am extremely concerned about the focus on conceptual math in the younger grades due to the new Common Core Standards. While I applaud the introduction of algebraic thinking into the primary school curriculum, children are failing tests because they aren't developmentally ready to fully grasp and consistently apply these concepts. Rather than create a generation of students who are equipped with higher level thinking skills, I fear we are going to generate more math-phobia.
Too many people already believe they are "bad at math." In reality, almost all people with at least normal levels of intelligence are capable of using the equations necessary for high school mathematics, given the right teaching methods and a confident attitude.
To test theories about the relationship between self-perception and academic achievement, psychologists asked study participants with which statement they agreed the most:
1. You have a certain amount of intelligence, and you really can’t do much to change it.
2. You can always greatly change how intelligent you are.
Those who believed intelligence is malleable performed better. The same idea is thought to be at play in the gender gap in mathematics and sciences in the United States. For some reason, Americans tend to believe that intelligence is innate more than others throughout the world. American woman buy into this idea even more than men. Young girls with high IQs tend to see academic set-backs as evidence that they are not very intelligent, rather than as a challenge to work through.
Regardless of the nature versus nurture argument, it appears likely that a person's belief in their own abilities can make a large difference at all but the top echelon of achievement. Even in the higher levels of academic science and math, it is those with determination and persistence who succeed over the long haul. Hard work and confidence play a larger role in success at the type of mathematics people will encounter and use in their lives.