We need to unpack the phrase "anyone can do maths" that is so popular today, and that is in some ways so radical and unintuitive that we both believe and disbelieve them at the same time.
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.
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.