You Are NOT Bad at Math

What's the secret to being good at math? If you think it's all about being blessed with good math genes, think again. Read on to find out what being good at math is really all about.

Jason Marshall, PhD
6-minute read
Episode #173

Math Is Hard (But So Is Sleeping)

In my mind, the most important line in the article states that "IQ itself can improve with hard work." (Check out the links in the article if you don't believe this!) In other words, learning math—or anything worthwhile—isn't easy. It's not supposed to be! It takes actual work…lots of it. And sure, math is harder for some people than others, but that doesn't mean those people can't do it.

Math is hard, but so is sleeping…at first.

This reminds me of helping my 3-month-old daughter learn to sleep. It's been a struggle, to say the least. Until I had a kid, I couldn't have imagined that sleeping was difficult—I love to sleep, I'm pretty good at it, and I actually find it quite easy, thank you very much. But she struggles to go to sleep, then struggles to stay asleep, and finally struggles to fall back asleep when she wakes up after only 15 minutes.

My point is that yes, math is hard, but so is sleeping…at first. It takes work, but eventually we get better at it. The important point is that we have to keep trying and not convince ourselves that we simply can't do it. Again, I know this sounds overly simplistic, but the research described in the article shows that this simple starting point really is the starting point. If we can fix the black hole of math negativity, then we can start to fix math. 

Why Is Math Worth Fixing

Which might lead you to wonder: "Why is math worth fixing?" The authors of The Atlantic article address that, too. They write:

"[M]ath skills are increasingly important for getting good jobs these days—so believing you can’t learn math is especially self-destructive. But we also believe that math is the area where America’s 'fallacy of inborn ability' is the most entrenched. Math is the great mental bogeyman of an unconfident America. If we can convince you that anyone can learn math, it should be a short step to convincing you that you can learn just about anything, if you work hard enough."

I've taught enough math and physics students—of all ability levels—over the years, and I know first hand that this mental block surrounding mathematical abilities is very real, very destructive, and even debilitating for some people. But I also know first hand that it can be overcome. The first step in overcoming this fear is to realize that you are not alone in "not getting it"—the truth is that nobody "gets it" at first. As Kimball and Smith describe:

"Too many Americans go through life terrified of equations and mathematical symbols. We think what many of them are afraid of is 'proving' themselves to be genetically inferior by failing to instantly comprehend the equations (when, of course, in reality, even a math professor would have to read closely). So they recoil from anything that looks like math, protesting: 'I’m not a math person.' And so they exclude themselves from quite a few  lucrative career opportunities. We believe that this has to stop."

I couldn't agree more.

How to Heal Math

So, what can be done to heal math? According to Kimball and Smith:

"[We] have at least one American-style idea for making kids smarter: treat people who work hard at learning as heroes and role models. We already venerate sports heroes who make up for lack of talent through persistence and grit; why should our educational culture be any different?

In the debate between 'nature vs. nurture,' a critical third element—personal perseverance and effort—seems to have been sidelined. We want to bring it back, and we think that math is the best place to start."

What can you do to help heal math? The simplest piece of advice I can give you is to try to avoid talking negatively about math. I know this can be a tough ask for people who have struggled over the years with math, but every time a kid hears a parent or any other adult talking about how hard math is or how "I was never any good at math," a seed is planted in that child's mind that makes him or her wonder if maybe they are bad at math, too. And thus the cycle will be doomed to continue. Let's all agree to help break it.

Wrap Up

Okay, that's all we have time for today. I'd be very interested to hear what you guys think about this article and the ideas I've talked about. Please send your thoughts via email to mathdude@quickanddirtytips.com.

Please be sure to check out my book The Math Dude’s Quick and Dirty Guide to Algebra. And remember to become a fan of the Math Dude on Facebook where you’ll find lots of great math posted throughout the week. If you’re on Twitter, please follow me there, too.

Until next time, this is Jason Marshall with The Math Dude’s Quick and Dirty Tips to Make Math Easier. Thanks for reading, math fans!


I Heart Math image courtest of Shutterstock.


About the Author

Jason Marshall, PhD

Jason Marshall is the author of The Math Dude's Quick and Dirty Guide to Algebra. He provides clear explanations of math terms and principles, and his simple tricks for solving basic algebra problems will have even the most math-phobic person looking forward to working out whatever math problem comes their way.