Date: Nov 3, 2013 2:29 PM
Author: Jerry P. Becker
Subject: The Myth of 'I'm Bad at Math'
From The Nation, Monday, October 28, 2013. See
The Myth of 'I'm Bad at Math'
Basic ability in the subject isn't the product of good genes, but hard work.
By Miles Kimball and Noah Smith
"I'm just not a math person."
We hear it all the time. And we've had enough.
Because we believe that the idea of "math people"
is the most self-destructive idea in America
today. The truth is, you probably are a math
person, and by thinking otherwise, you are
possibly hamstringing your own career. Worse, you
may be helping to perpetuate a pernicious myth
that is harming underprivileged children-the myth
of inborn genetic math ability.
Is math ability genetic? Sure, to some degree.
Terence Tao, UCLA's famous virtuoso
mathematician, publishes dozens of papers in top
journals every year, and is sought out by
researchers around the world to help with the
hardest parts of their theories. Essentially none
of us could ever be as good at math as Terence
Tao, no matter how hard we tried or how well we
were taught. But here's the thing: We don't have
to! For high-school math, inborn talent is much
less important than hard work, preparation, and
How do we know this? First of all, both of us
have taught math for many years-as professors,
teaching assistants, and private tutors. Again
and again, we have seen the following pattern
1. Different kids with different levels of
preparation come into a math class. Some of these
kids have parents who have drilled them on math
from a young age, while others never had that
kind of parental input.
2. On the first few tests, the well-prepared
kids get perfect scores, while the unprepared
kids get only what they could figure out by
winging it-maybe 80 or 85%, a solid B.
3. The unprepared kids, not realizing that the
top scorers were well-prepared, assume that
genetic ability was what determined the
performance differences. Deciding that they "just
aren't math people," they don't try hard in
future classes, and fall further behind.
4. The well-prepared kids, not realizing that
the B students were simply unprepared, assume
that they are "math people," and work hard in the
future, cementing their advantage.
Thus, people's belief that math ability can't
change becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The idea that math ability is mostly genetic is
one dark facet of a larger fallacy that
intelligence is mostly genetic. Academic
psychology journals are well stocked with papers
studying the world view that lies behind the kind
of self-fulfilling prophecy we just described.
For example, Purdue University psychologist
Patricia Linehan writes [see
A body of research on conceptions of ability has
shown two orientations toward ability. Students
with an Incremental orientation believe ability
(intelligence) to be malleable, a quality that
increases with effort. Students with an Entity
orientation believe ability to be nonmalleable, a
fixed quality of self that does not increase with
The "entity orientation" that says "You are smart
or not, end of story," leads to bad outcomes-a
result that has been confirmed by many other
studies. (The relevance for math is shown by
researchers at Oklahoma City who recently
found that belief in inborn math ability may be
responsible for much of the gender gap in
Psychologists Lisa Blackwell, Kali Trzesniewski,
and Carol Dweck presented these alternatives to
determine people's beliefs about intelligence
1. You have a certain amount of intelligence,
and you really can't do much to change it.
2. You can always greatly change how intelligent you are.
They found that students who agreed that "You can
always greatly change how intelligent you are"
got higher grades. But as Richard Nisbett
recounts in his book Intelligence and How to Get
It, they did something even more remarkable:
Dweck and her colleagues then tried to convince a
group of poor minority junior high school
students that intelligence is highly malleable
and can be developed by hard workthat learning
changes the brain by forming newconnections and
that students are in charge of this change
The results? Convincing students that they could
make themselves smarter by hard work led them to
work harder and get higher grades. The
intervention had the biggest effect for students
who started out believing intelligence was
genetic. (A control group, who were taught how
memory works, showed no such gains.)
But improving grades was not the most dramatic
effect, "Dweck reported that some of her tough
junior high school boys were reduced to tears by
the news that their intelligence was
substantially under their control." It is no
picnic going through life believing you were born
dumb-and are doomed to stay that way.
For almost everyone, believing that you were born
dumb-and are doomed to stay that way-is believing
a lie. [see
] IQ itself can improve with hard work. Because
the truth may be hard to believe, here is a set
of links about some excellent books to convince
you that most people can become smart in many
ways, if they work hard enough [see
* The Art of Learning by Josh Weitzkin
* Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer
* The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle
* Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin
So why do we focus on math? For one thing, math
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.
Is America more susceptible than other nations to
the dangerous idea of genetic math ability? Here
our evidence is only anecdotal, but we suspect
that this is the case. While American fourth and
eighth graders score quite well
international math comparisons-beating countries
like Germany, the UK and Sweden-our
high-schoolers underperform those countries by a
]. This suggests that Americans' native ability
is just as good as anyone's, but that we fail to
capitalize on that ability through hard work. In
response to the lackluster high school math
performance, some influential voices in American
education policy have suggested simply teaching
less math-for example, Andrew Hacker has
called for algebra to no longer be a requirement
[see Is Algebra Necessary? - NYTimes.com --
]. The subtext, of course, is that large numbers
of American kids are simply not born with the
ability to solve for x.
We believe that this approach is disastrous and
wrong. First of all, it leaves many Americans
ill-prepared to compete in a global marketplace
with hard-working foreigners. But even more
importantly, it may contribute to inequality. A
great deal of research has shown that technical
skills in areas like software are increasingly
making the difference between America's upper
middle class and its working class. While we
don't think education is a cure-all for
inequality, we definitely believe that in an
increasingly automated workplace, Americans who
give up on math are selling themselves short.
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
] We believe that this has to stop. Our view is
shared by economist and writer Allison Schrager,
who has written two wonderful columns in Quartz [
http://qz.com/16207/take-it-from-me-a-real-economist-who-needed-convincing-math-matters/ and [
], that echo many of our views.
One way to help Americans excel at math is to
copy the approach of the Japanese, Chinese, and
Koreans. In Intelligence and How to Get It [see
], Nisbett describes how the educational systems
of East Asian countries focus more on hard work
than on inborn talent:
1. "Children in Japan go to school about 240 days
a year, whereas children in the United States go
to school about 180 days a year."
2. "Japanese high school students of the 1980s
studied 3 1/2 hours a day, and that number is
likely to be, if anything, higher today."
3. "[The inhabitants of Japan and Korea] do not
need to read this book to find out that
intelligence and intellectual accomplishment are
highly malleable. Confucius set that matter
straight twenty-five hundred years ago."
4. "When they do badly at something, [Japanese,
Koreans, etc.] respond by working harder at it."
5. "Persistence in the face of failure is very
much part of the Asian tradition of
And [people in those countries] are accustomed to
criticism in the service of self-improvement in
situations where Westerners avoid it or resent
We certainly don't want America's education
system to copy everything Japan does (and we
remain agnostic regarding the wisdom of
Confucius). But it seems to us that an emphasis
on hard work is a hallmark not just of modern
East Asia, but of America's past as well. In
returning to an emphasis on effort, America would
be returning to its roots, not just copying from
Besides cribbing a few tricks from the Japanese,
we also 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? [see
Math education, we believe, is just the most
glaring area of a slow and worrying shift. We see
our country moving away from a culture of hard
work toward a culture of belief in genetic
determinism. 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.