Debunking the 'Bad at Math' Myth

The idea that certain people are inherently "bad at math" is one that hardly anybody would consider groundbreaking education news. But as Miles Kimball, an economics professor at the University of Michigan, and Noah Smith, an assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University, pointed out in a recent article in The Atlantic Monthly, that notion is more myth than reality.

A new approach to teaching math
Kimball and Smith's basic premise is that the divide between people who are "good" at math and those who aren't has more to do with psychology, hard work and preparation than it does with natural intelligence. And while they admit that people at the extreme ends of that skill set may indeed be greatly helped or hindered by genetics, for the vast majority of students, dedication and a willingness to learn play a much bigger role than any sort of inherent predisposition.

One of their key points was that students enter math classes with a certain level of preparedness, and that plays a bigger role in math intelligence than anything else. Students who spent time developing their math skills before entering a class will almost always do better than those who didn't, and their early performances on tests will then be perpetuated by those results.

Students who were better prepared, and scored well on math tests early on, will consider themselves "math people," then continue to focus on the subject. Students who fared poorly will have the opposite reaction, and continue to put less emphasis on math going forward.

Teaching math with these concepts in mind
However, it doesn't have to be that way. Kimball and Smith believe that if you prove to students that the amount of work they put in, not their genes, determines their "intelligence" in math, they will respond by being more dedicated.  

As an example, they cite work done by psychologists Lisa Blackwell, Kali Trzesniewski and Carol Dweck, who tried to convince a group of underprivileged, minority junior high school students that they could change their intelligence level through hard work. Those students soon increased their effort and got higher grades. The positive results were especially notable for students who had previously believed intelligence was genetic.

This kind of thinking can provide a way forward for people pursuing careers in teaching, as it shows that by simply convincing students their intelligence is up to them, not genetics, they can exhibit remarkable improvement in a very short period of time. And it can help to build on the already strong math and science scores that many states across the U.S. demonstrated in a recent study done by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. 

This article is sponsored by Western Governors University, a non-profit, accredited, online university. WGU's Teachers College offers multiple online degree programs for current teachers or those looking to become teachers. To find out more, please visit www.wgu.edu/wisecareers_teachers.

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