You too can conquer the myth of 'I'm bad at Mathematics'

“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 ‘Math people’ is the most self-destructive idea in world today.

“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 ‘Math people’ is the most self-destructive idea in world today. The truth is, you probably are a math 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 math ability.

Is Math ability genetic? Sure, to some degree. Terence Tao, University of California’s famous virtuoso mathematician, publishes dozens of papers in top journals every year, and is sought out by researchers around the world to help with the hardest parts of their theories. Until Albert Enstein returns, perhaps no one will ever be as good at Maths as Terence Tao, no matter how hard we tried or how well we were taught. But here is the thing: We don’t have to! For high school Maths, inborn talent is much less important than hard work, preparation, and self-confidence.

We have seen the following pattern repeat itself; they could explain why.

1. Different kids with different levels of preparation come into a math class. Some of these kids have parents who have drilled them on Maths 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, while the unprepared kids get only what they could figure out by winging it—maybe 80 or 85 per cent, a solid B.

3. The unprepared kids, not realizsing 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.

4. The well-prepared kids, not realising 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 Maths ability cannot change becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The idea that Maths ability is mostly genetic is one dark facet of a larger fallacy that intelligence is mostly genetic. Academic psychology journals are well stocked with papers studying the world view that lies behind the kind of self-fulfilling prophecy we just described. For example, Purdue University psychologist Patricia Linehan writes:

“A body of research on conceptions of ability has shown two orientations toward ability. Students with an Incremental orientation believe ability (intelligence) to be malleable, a quality that increases with effort. Students with an entity orientation believe ability to be nonmalleable, a fixed quality of self that does not increase with effort.

The ‘entity orientation’ that says “You are smart or not, end of story,” leads to bad outcomes—a result that has been confirmed by many other studies. (The relevance for math is shown by researchers at Oklahoma City who recently found that belief in inborn math ability may be responsible for much of the gender gap in Mathematics.)

Psychologists Lisa Blackwell, Kali Trzesniewski, and Carol Dweck presented these alternatives to determine people’s beliefs about intelligence. They found that students who agreed that “You can always greatly change how intelligent you are” got higher grades.

Dweck and her colleagues tried to convince a group of poor minority junior high school students that intelligence is highly influenced and can be developed by hard work…that learning changes the brain by forming new…connections and that students are in charge of this change process.

The results? Convincing students that they could make themselves smarter by hard work led them to work harder and get higher grades.

Compiled by Jean de la Croix Tabaro

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