What we mean when we say “anyone can do maths”

An article by Education Expert Dan FInkel.

We need to unpack the phrase, and attendant phrases, that are so popular today, and that are in some ways so radical and unintuitive that we both believe and disbelieve them at the same time.

  • Anyone can do maths
  • Everyone is a mathematician
  • You’re good at maths (and don’t know it)
  • There’s no such thing as a math person. Everyone can do maths!

And so on. These are correctives, and important ones, to another, earlier set of problematic (and faulty) axioms, that assumed the world is divided up into “math people” and “I’m-not-a-maths-person” people. There are multitudes who believe they can’t do math when they suffer only from corrosive classroom experiences. But too unthinking an embrace of these taglines is problematic too.

The current excitement around growth mindset in classrooms around the world is meant, partly, to prevent maths class from being a place where you get identified as a person who either has or doesn’t have the “maths gene” (another discredited concept), and sorted accordingly into the appropriate track. Then students who are fast and know their facts are fast-tracked into more challenging and interesting mathematics, while folks who are slower or don’t have the facts down are placed in lower, slower tracks, and get the message that they don’t belong in the subject.

And yet we have a way of overcorrecting. Growth mindset is effectively a positive and useful outlook, but right now there’s a risk it gets overapplied (and under-understood) and becomes another educational fad that backfires in implementation.

When we say anyone can do maths, what do we actually mean?

If we’re saying that everyone is equally talented mathematically, then we’re lying. And kids know this. You know it too. There are people who have unusual insights or abilities in mathematics. Some (e.g., Ramanujan, Nash, Turing, Johnson) get their own movies. And speaking of movies, that anyone can do maths line has a counterpart in the movies, in Pixar’s Ratatouille. There, the line is anyone can cook.

Ego’s parsing of the phrase anyone can cook is not obvious, and it’s not really the primary meaning of the phrase. The truth is, there are really three meanings all wrapped up there: anyone can learn to have the joy and pleasure of cooking in their life, even if they don’t become a master chef. Some people will get serious about it. And the visionaries who change the way we think about the art can come from anywhere — lock them out of the field and we all suffer.

This is what we have to mean when we insist that anyone can do maths. For it to be more than an empty platitude, or a blatant falsehood, we have to be precise.

What does anyone can do maths really mean?

  1. Everyone is capable of mathematical literacy. In other words, everyone has the capacity to learn the foundational mathematics that allow them to understand and participate in our (increasingly data-heavy) world. Everyone is capable of doing arithmetic, understanding fractions, percents, basic algebra and graphing, basic probability and statistics, and should be able to read a graph in a newspaper or hear a statistic on the radio without getting flustered. They should know that they have the ability to understand the vast majority of the maths that surrounds them in the world if they decide to put in the work. This means they should have the numeracy to participate as citizens in our society, and also to pursue the career path of their choice. (It is shocking how many people literally give up on their dreams because it requires them to take too many maths courses.)
  2. Everyone deserves to see some beautiful ideas of mathematics. Just like we send students on field trips to museums and have them read great poems and novels, part of their human inheritance is exposure to breathtaking mathematical ideas. (I’ve written about this extensively before, but if you feel like spending twenty minutes on a specific example, check out a 3blue1brown video, like this one on Hilbert Curves.) The fact that people respond with panic rather than wonder is a sign that we’re doing something wrong.
  3. A great mathematician can come from anywhere. We all have biases about what mathematicians are supposed to look like, and also what students who are “good at maths” are supposed to look and act like. We need to teach like anyone and everyone in our classroom could have a gift for maths that’s about to manifest… because they just might, and we may never know unless they’re given the opportunity.

This is what I mean when I say that anyone can do maths. Not that everyone is equally talented (which is a lie), or equally interested in the subject (another lie). I used to say that Math for Love was dedicated to giving people a chance and a reason to fall in love with mathematics, but I know full well that not everyone will, which is fine.

What we should all be shooting for is a world where everyone is mathematically literate, and where fear or anxiety around mathematics doesn’t prevent people from doing the things they dream of doing. Everyone should see some beautiful mathematical ideas and know what it feels like. And if we can do that, we’ll also see great mathematical arising from all corners or our society and classrooms. Because there are kids who have a gift for or love of mathematics who we’re not reaching yet.

Not everyone is equally gifted in mathematics. But there are reasons to teach like everyone could be.

Dan Finkel

Education Expert – Math for Love

Dan Finkel is a maths education expert with a PhD in algebraic geometry. He is a TEDx Talk speaker, an award-winning board game creator, a TED-Ed riddle contributor, an improv comedy performer and a teacher of teachers and students. But his most important role is leader of his company, Math for Love, which he established in 2010.

The company is Dan’s solution to the growing problem of maths anxiety in classrooms across the world.

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