Setting the math tone

I’ve been spending a lot of time with fractions lately. They’re a big presence in the learning lives of many a 9 year-old.  I’ll leave alone for the moment the question of whether or not this is a necessary or helpful condition to assign to kids of this age. For now, I’m wondering what it is about math in particular that drives so many of us to declare ourselves Good at Math or Not Good at Math.  Fractions are busy driving the very young to join us in this habit.

You see this Good/Not Good in other areas too, but only when there’s a specific context.  For example, it’s a big deal to know whether or not you’re Good at the Backstroke, if you’re on the swim team.  It’s a big deal to know whether or not you’re Good at Interpreting Data if you’re in a job that requires interpreting data.  And it’s a big deal to know whether or not you’re Good at Reading if you’re an elementary school student.  (I’m not saying this is the only time it’s important to be able to read; just that once you’re not in school anymore or under the reading gun, it stops being important or noteworthy whether you’re good at it or not; you either can or you can’t.  The relative skill stops being relevant.)

But there’s something about the decisions and declarations we make about our capacity for math that endures.  It reaches across contexts and time spans.

It’s weird.  And it has a nasty impact that other Good Ats don’t.  If math were like reading, where (once you’re out of school) it isn’t as important how good you are at it but just plain whether or not you can do it to the extent that you need to, then we wouldn’t have to carry on about it. Everyone, regardless of how successful they’d  been at math as children, would just go about dealing with whatever math came along, figuring out how to do the parts they really needed or wanted to, letting people help them with it (distinct from handing it off to other people), and dealing with whatever other challenges they encountered about it.  We wouldn’t have to keep perpetuating our demoralizing opinions of ourselves with regard to math, sharing them with other people so that they could help us perpetuate those opinions, and thus keep undermining our capacities to actually find our way through it, make use of it, and even make peace with it.

If you’ve ever been declared or declared yourself Not Good at Math I encourage you to reconsider your position.  It’s absolutely irrelevant whether you’re good at it or not (what matters is whether or not you get the math done that you need to get done), yet the declaration may continue to wreak extensive havoc on your life.  “I’m Not Good at Math” may have prevented you from becoming a scientist or an architect, may prevent you from taking control of your finances, may prevent you from playing board games with your children.  It also probably isn’t much good for your general opinion of yourself, so heavy is the weight we assign to Math Goodness in our culture (even though unlike myriad creative capacities, most of the math in question can be performed by a computer, rendering it less valuable and impressive than much of what you can do with your human brain).

And further, kids tend to take cues from their parents. If you keep saying you’re Not Good at Math, you increase the chances that your kids will make that choice for themselves.  It’s not quite enough to count on teachers or other family members to set the tone for your kids and math. As long as there’s someone around insisting they’re Not Good, the Good/Not Good tradition lives on.  Give your kids the chance to live in a world without it.