Last week we posted an article about ACT math readiness on our Facebook page.  Sadly, math readiness for the Class of 2018 dropped to a 14-year low.  This is discouraging in the face of opportunities for students in STEM fields.  Why the drop?  Too many kids believe the myth that “I am not a math person.”

Fight the Self-Fulfilling Prophesy

Everyone has the capacity to do math, according to math educators Miles Kimball and Noah Smith in an article in The Atlantic.  Yes, there are a few geniuses out there.  But for most students, ability to do math has everything to do with student preparation.  Success or failure is the result of a self-fulfilling prophesy, not any innate ability.  Here is how they describe this phenomenon:

“Both of us have taught math for many years—as professors, teaching assistants, and private tutors. Again and again, we have seen the following pattern repeat itself:

  1. Different kids with different levels of preparation come into a math class. Some of these kids have parents who have drilled them on math from a young age, while others never had that kind of parental input.
  2. On the first few tests, the well-prepared kids get perfect scores.  The unprepared kids get only what they could figure out by winging it—maybe 80 or 85%, a solid B.
  3. The unprepared kids, not realizing that the top scorers were well-prepared, assume that genetic ability was what determined the performance differences. Deciding that they “just aren’t math people,” they don’t try hard in future classes, and fall further behind.
  4. The well-prepared kids, not realizing that the B students were simply unprepared, assume that they are “math people,” and work hard in the future, cementing their advantage.

Thus, people’s belief that math ability can’t change becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.  You could use the same pattern above to discuss success at soccer, reading, or playing the violin.  Success isn’t genetic, it’s just the result of hard work and practice.

Positive Attitude Breeds Success in Math—Or Any Other Subject

Some people believe the notion that some of us are just born with the ability to do math, and some aren’t.  However, there is ample evidence from neuroscientists that proves that the brain can grow and things like math ability can improve.  Researchers like Carol Dweck have demonstrated that once kids become convinced they CAN learn, they are able to succeed in subjects they never thought themselves capable of mastering.  Attitude toward learning plays a huge role in success.

The “Drill and Kill” Approach Sets Kids Up for Failure

A recent article makes an interesting point about how math is taught and why kids decide early that they aren’t “math people.”  Jennifer Ruef, Assistant Professor of Education Studies at the University of Oregon, makes the point that traditionally, humans were “calculators”.  Therefore, the speed at which we could come up with right answers became the standard for success.  We were all pushed to memorize our “math facts” so we could quickly come up with answers.  The push for speed worked for some kids, but others were paralyzed by having to come up with answers quickly.  Thus, they concluded “I’m not a math person.”

Today, educators realize students don’t need speed—they need understanding.  The “drill and kill” approach to teaching math is being replaced by different approaches.  Understanding the relationships of numbers and the logic behind them is much deeper learning.  Memorization of facts is low on the hierarchy of learning and thinking.  Understanding and applying knowledge are higher up on the scale, and that is what we want students to be able to do in math.

What Parents Can Do

The worst thing a parent can do is let their child believe he or she “isn’t a math person.”  Giving a student that “out” is like saying it’s okay to not try to read better.  Parents should also not characterize themselves in that manner.  Teach your kids to play Sudoku and KenKen, games that use logic and manipulation of numbers.  Discuss all the ways you use math.  Even though it may not have been a favorite subject, it’s an essential skill and one that everyone uses.

At Knowledge Edge, we have countless examples of kids who came to us failing math, with little or no confidence.   With tutoring and hard work, they find that they actually enjoy math, and ultimately improve their math readiness for college.  For more information about our math program and math tutoring at Knowledge Edge, check out our website or call us at 262-238-8867.