Not a maths person

The world is not made up of two kinds of people: the maths people and the not maths people.

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In my university days, when I would meet new people I always braced for the response when inevitably I’d say ‘Me? I’m studying applied maths.’ 

There were four main responses; none of which were conducive to continuing a conversation.

‘So like, can you do 587 times 923 in your head?’
‘I’ve never liked maths.’
‘Oh, you must really love maths then.’
And the occasional: ‘I loved maths in high school!’

But the response that really stands out in my head was when a parent said: “My daughter Bella* isn’t a maths person.” I enquired further; was Bella struggling with algebra and pronumerals? Had she chosen not to do maths in her senior years of high school? Had her NAPLAN results put her in a low band? I was already brainstorming ways to help her see past a bad test result or better understand a particular topic with which she might be struggling. 

Then I found out Bella was five. I was stunned! Of course, children show more interest in some areas over others. But what could it mean that a child just starting school wasn’t ‘a maths person’? At that age Bella should be counting and naming shapes she sees around her. Maths should be connected to her everyday world and developed and practiced in her everyday life. So how had maths already developed negative connotations? 

Ultimately, the world is not made up of two kinds of people: the maths people and the not maths people. People who are typically labelled ‘maths people’ have had opportunities to enjoy and be successful at mathematical thinking. For some, these opportunities arise in the classroom, but for many others they occur through spotting and creating patterns, playing board games or calculating sports statistics. When kids can connect fun maths experiences outside the classroom they can start to think of maths more positively.

I wondered what would happen when Bella ran into difficulties in her maths education. Would she understand that sometimes things get difficult, and be able to persevere through them? Or would she start to echo the words of her parents and think that this is just one of those things she can’t do? 

One of the keys to success in mathematics is having a growth mindset. Students who succeed in maths aren’t people who have evaded all struggles in maths. It is inevitable that everyone will have difficulty with some aspect of mathematics. Successful maths students have the confidence that when they encounter a new idea that they are stuck on, that one day they will acquire and understand this mathematical idea, just not yet!

The development of children’s perception of their abilities begins before students have even donned their first school uniform. This perception sets the stage for how students will thrive in mathematics. There are even studies showing that students’ self image is an indicator of their future success in mathematics.  The stories we tell about ourselves come to define us.

Furthermore, students’ perception of mathematics is influenced by their parents’ attitudes1. Multiple studies have shown that parents who have maths anxiety affect their childrens’ beliefs and attitudes towards maths2. Most strikingly, when mothers tell their daughters they were not good at maths in school, their daughter’s achievement declines almost immediately3.

In my conversation with Bella’s mother it became apparent that she had never considered herself ‘a maths person’ either and had struggled with maths throughout all her schooling. She was now projecting these ideas on her daughter. But how empowering would it be to reclaim that narrative and ensure Bella could see success in maths? So that maybe in the near future it will be Bella saying ‘I’m studying applied maths.’

References

1(Arens et al., 2015)  
2(Boaler, 2016) and (Lai, Zhu, Chen, & Li, 2015)
3(Eccles & Jacobs, 1986)

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