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5 Myths About Math

As a mathematics educator, I care deeply about the work that I do and am passionate about creating positive experiences for students in math class. When I tell other people about my work, I often hear a very similar set of responses, many of which are based on deeply rooted math myths. Since holiday parties are often not the time and place for impassioned soliloquies, I’ve decided to save my thoughts for this blog post. Here are 5 of the most common myths about mathematics:


1. Some people just don’t have the math gene.

I cannot tell you how many conversations I’ve had where upon hearing what work I do, people tell me some combination of “I was never good at math” or “You must have the math gene” or “I don’t have the math gene”. Usually this is followed up by an anecdote of a friend or family member who did have the math gene, and how their paths differed. I have yet to find a witty but honest response to this besides “There’s no such thing as a math gene. I believe all people can learn math.”


Why it’s a myth: Biologically, the math gene just does not exist. There is no genetic code that gets passed on from parent to child predetermining their mathematical ability. Additionally, people aren’t born with a natural aptitude for numbers and mathematical reasoning. What has been shown in studies is that students who believe that intelligence can increase with effort (adopting a growth mindset, rather than a fixed mindset) achieve higher.


Kernel of truth: People vary in the level of enjoyment they get out of doing mathematics, and just as in all things, people like to spend time doing things they enjoy and that come naturally to them. People that do more mathematics become better at mathematics, forming a positive reinforcement cycle. I also think that students differ in the facility with which they learn new math concepts. This is not due to the presence or absence of a math gene as much as more general cognitive differences in working memory, metacognition, and self-regulation.  It is important to distinguish between the ability to do mathematics and the ability to learn mathematics. I am using “learning mathematics” to mean acquiring the concepts and skills outlined in grade-level expectations for school mathematics. It is a shame that so little of what is taught in schools and how it is taught reflects the work, habits of mind, and reasoning processes of actual mathematicians. Perhaps if more of math class was focused on reasoning mathematically, rather than just getting right answers, many more students would find the subject accessible and rewarding.

 

Why this myth is problematic: The existence of a math gene divides people into the “haves” and the “have nots”. The “haves” are treated with awe and respect and regarded as “geniuses” while the “have nots” are tolerated and sympathized with. We are missing out on loads of potential for joy and mathematical discovery by limiting mathematics to a select group.

 

Perhaps the better answer to the math gene statement is to say that we’re all missing the math gene. It does not exist!

 

2. Math is black-and-white.

This one I hear most often from students themselves, specifically from those who say that math is their favorite subject. When I ask them why, the most frequent response I get is that “math is black and white” by which they mean the answer is either right or wrong, and there is no subjectivity. There are hard and fast rules. If you know them, you can solve any problem.

 

Why it’s a myth: To say that math is completely objective and has no ambiguity is simply not true. There are unsolved problems in mathematics. There are problems with multiple solutions. Differing definitions can cause different solutions that are at odds with each other (e.g. does a trapezoid have at least one set of parallel sides or exactly one set of parallel sides? The answer will determine whether we can classify a rectangle as a trapezoid or not). There are proofs that are more elegant than others, easier to follow, more convincing, and for lack of a better word, better, than others but that doesn’t mean one is right and the other is wrong.

 

Kernel of truth: Most of the problems we give students to work on in school do have a right answer. Most right answers can be validated and proven.  I think maybe what students really mean (and like) about mathematics is the idea that you can know if you’re right or not and the validity of your answer doesn’t change based on who is grading the assignment.


Why this myth is problematic: Claiming math as a black-and-white subject misconstrues math as an activity that is highly algorithmic and centered around answer getting. Yes, math is about finding solutions, but it is also about communicating one’s reasoning, representing problems, thinking systematically, evaluating claims, and constructing arguments.

 

 

3. Math skills are being made obsolete with calculators, computers, AI, etc.

This is often the argument made by students questioning the relevance of what they’re learning. The “you won’t always have a calculator” argument has been by and large abolished in today’s technological age, which is likely the motivator for this perpetuated myth.


Kernel of truth: If math is taking inputs, executing an algorithm, and spitting out an answer, then yes, technology can do the job for us.


Why it’s a myth: Humans are much more than calculators. Calculators don’t have discretion; they don’t make choices. They do exactly what they’re told and only that. They are not creative; they do not form conjectures or pose new problems. They can easily understand commands like “If _____, then do ____.” But they don’t ask “What if…?”. Technology may produce data, but it cannot interpret the data or use the data to create change.

 

Why this myth is problematic: As with many of the above myths, this myth perpetuates ideas about math being primarily about calculations, which is a distorted and limited perspective. Mathematics is collaborative and deeply human.

 


4. It’s okay not to be good at math.

How do we sympathize with someone who reports that they hated math growing up? “It’s okay. I wasn’t good at math either.” One of the worst things parents can do is to transfer their math phobias to their kids, by either telling them horror stories of their own experience in math or by not holding equally high expectations for math as they would for the other subjects, especially reading.


Why it’s a myth: Imagine if we applied the same argument to reading. To say that it’s fine for some to not be able to read is ludicrous. Do we say that a person who enjoys reading and reads several books each month has the “reading gene”? To the child who struggles to read, do we advise them to avoid it and focus on physical education instead? Mathematical or quantitative literacy is just as important as regular literacy. That doesn’t mean that everybody has to become a professional mathematician, just like we don’t expect all people to be literature professors.  Mathematics, like reading, is a human right. Everybody deserves to be able to make sense of the world around them by noticing patterns and relationships, validating and critiquing claims, and yes, being able to determine whether the cashier properly applied the 20% off coupon to their purchase.

 

Kernel of truth: It’s okay that learning math takes time. It’s okay to enjoy other subjects more than math. It’s okay to choose a non-STEM career because other disciplines’ ways of thinking come more naturally to you. But avoiding math like the plague and thereby forfeiting opportunities to develop mathematical reasoning is not an advisable or sustainable solution.

 

Why this myth is problematic: The ability to think mathematically opens doors: to jobs and careers, yes, but also to regular activities of citizenship, like reading and understanding the news, budgeting and paying bills, and making informed decisions based on data. A person who is comfortable with being “bad at math” and perhaps even gets this message reinforced by well-meaning family members experiences unnecessary stress and anxiety during these activities or even avoids them entirely, missing out on opportunities for personal growth. 

 

 

5. You don’t need any of the math taught past 6th grade unless you’re going into a STEM field.

I have had many people concede that while taking math in elementary and maybe even middle school is useful, upper-level math can be largely done without.

 

Kernel of truth: It is unlikely that your employer will ask you to find the real and imaginary solutions of a polynomial (unless you're a high school math teacher of course!). Similarly, you probably won’t use the term “upper limit of integration” in your next email. Remembering many of the more abstract math concepts taught in high school will likely not affect how successfully you can complete your job.

 

Why it’s a myth: Math class is about developing thinking and reasoning skills that get gradually more sophisticated as students advance through middle school and high school. The content at which these reasoning skills are directed is not as important as the reasoning skills themselves. As students advance through high school, it becomes less about the utility of the actual content and more about the development of mathematical practices. Much of high school math reinforces key mathematical ideas such as equivalence, proportional reasoning, and decomposition, albeit in more abstract contexts.

 

Why this myth is problematic: If the argument is that we should learn things only that are useful to our everyday jobs, then I also shouldn’t learn history, since nobody is quizzing me on dates of war battles, nor should I learn anything about the arts, since I am not being asked to analyze paintings or compose music.

 

School is about more than just learning skills that are immediately applicable to our everyday lives.


Conclusion

In order to change how people view and talk about math, we must first change their experiences in math class. Memorizing disparate facts, completing hundreds of rote exercises, and listening to long lectures that make sense only to the teacher is the antithesis of what it means to truly do mathematics. This is why we are passionate about the #EFFLRevolution and are grateful for all of you who are on the journey with us!

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