Are you a “math person”? Most likely, the way in which you answer this question determines how well you understand mathematical concepts, and just as important, how much you appreciate/enjoy mathematics. But what if that is the wrong question?

What if we are all math people, at least until we’re convinced that we’re not?

A writer for an article on Quartz explains that the research just does not support the notion that we are genetically predisposed to either understand mathematics or not. Instead, he proposes the “love it and learn it” hypothesis, which is more supported by the research and which has three elements:

- For anyone, the more time spent thinking about and working on math, the higher the level of mathematical skill achieved.
- Those who love math spend more time thinking about and working on math.
- There is a genetic component to how much someone loves math.

So what are the implications if this hypothesis is true? The article goes on:

If the “love it and learn it” hypothesis is true, it gives a simple recommendation for someone who wants to get better at math: spend more time thinking about and working on math. Best of all: spend time doing math in the kinds of ways people who love math spend time doing math.

if a kid has a bad experience trying to learn math in school, or is bored with some bits of math, the answer isn’t to say “Well maybe you just aren’t a math person.” Instead, it is to find some other way to help that kid with math and to find other bits of math that would be exciting for their particular kid to help build her or his interest and confidence.

Why do so many people get convinced that they are just “not a math person”? If someone has an awful math teacher as a student, it’s common for the student to associate his/her frustrations with math, rather than the teacher. Another big problem is that classroom instruction is not set up to be student-paced. The article quotes blogger Cathy O’Neil who writes:

There’s always someone faster than you. And it feels bad, especially when you feel slow, and especially when that person cares about being fast, because all of a sudden, in your confusion about all sort of things, speed seems important. But it’s not a race. Mathematics is patient and doesn’t mind.

Being good at math is really about how much you want to spend your time doing math. And I guess it’s true that if you’re slower you have to want to spend more time doing math, but if you love doing math then that’s totally fine.

Click here to read the rest of the article. It’s fairly lengthy but well worth reading.

[…] To explore more about this philosophy of mathematics, check out my series on parental engagement in math. And to read about how we can turn everyone into a math person, click here. […]