Just Not a "Math" Person

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How come, when a child struggles with literacy, nobody ever says I guess you're just not a "Language Arts" person?

Parents and teachers will bend over backwards to make reading fun and approachable for kids. Libraries hold summer reading challenges, schools offer reading labs, extended library time, reading groups, and everything else they can think of to get kids interested in reading; hell, parents will spend $thousands on early reading classes to give their kids a leg up in Kindergarten.

When a kid can't read, we don't give up on them. We come at the problem from as many angles as possible to help them learn, because countless studies have shown that kids who read tend to have more academic, financial, and societal success.

So, why don't we apply that same enthusiasm to mathematics?

Sure, schools offer STEM programs now to help get kids more engaged, but when they struggle to truly understand the math they are learning, we (as a society) have a tendency to ultimately dismiss that struggle and give them an identity of just not a "math" person, and a reassurance that they'll never need to use it in "real" life anyway.

First off, that's bullshit. Mathematical thinking isn't about whether or not you ever have to use differential equations in line at the grocery store, it's about critical thinking. Saying someone isn't a "math" person is like saying they're not a "problem solving" person; and that identity ultimately becomes its own self-fulfilling prophecy.

It's amazing the self-limiting beliefs we instill in our children.

Kids who don't believe they are good at math, who internalize that it's just "beyond them," will never be able to view a math problem with anything more than anxiety and disdain. Solving a problem correctly doesn't cause a bump of excitement and pride; more likely, it just feels like getting through a distasteful task, like unclogging a toilet or cleaning the garage.

Math isn't something to be "good" or "bad" at. It's just a skill like any other, and it takes time and encouragement to learn.

I think the feeling that math is a thing you either "get" or you don't comes from the plug-and-chug methodologies of mathematical pedagogy, and (in my own experience) there is a tendency to give kids a formula or a pattern and have them apply it.

It's a lazy approach that does all students that aren't naturally mathematically inclined a disservice—not to mention an approach that would fail catastrophically if applied to reading.

Reading isn't a formula, it's a process. You learn the letters, then the sounds, and eventually you're stumbling through Shakespeare in front of the whole class.

Math works the same.

It's a process. You can't just plug the numbers you're given into some easy-to-remember formula and call that understanding. It's about first principles, and understanding the why behind the how.

To (poorly) steal a quote from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry:

If you want every child to be a "math person," don't just have them memorize formulas, follow steps, or apply arbitrary rules. Instead, teach them to appreciate the beauty of the numbers and recognize the harmony of patterns hidden beneath each equation.


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This is post 034 of #100DaysToOffload