Don’t Let Your Choice of Identity Handicap You.

Albert Einstein Sticking Out His Tongue

“Do not worry about your difficulties in mathematics. I can assure you mine are still greater.”
-A. Einstein

A perennial topic in Occupy Math is the difference between how hard math is and how hard students think it is. The biggest part of this difference lies in the fear we call math anxiety. One of the most painful things that happens to Occupy Math is to have a student come to office hours for help wound up in such a state of fear that the question “what is 4+7?” is answered with a pained cry of “I don’t know!” The student could add four and seven (she did a few minutes later) — but she was too afraid to try at that moment. This is something that has not only happened, but happens more semesters than not. This interchange comes when Occupy Math tries to help a student by going through a problem with them one step at a time. If Occupy Math provides each step, it impairs learning. If the student is asked to provide each step, they sometimes panic. Based on these experiences, Occupy Math has concluded the following.

Understanding the source and psychology of math anxiety is a critical job skill for any mathematics instructor.

Occupy Math has already explained why you should never say you’re not a math person — this week’s edition goes deeper into the issue by looking at one of the big anchors people use to keep their math anxiety firmly in place. The Atlantic is a champion of math literacy and their article The Myth of ‘I’m Bad at Math’ is worth reading. The article acknowledges that there are different intrinsic levels of skill at math — but it also correctly notes that almost anyone can do math at least pretty well. Someone who is really good at math can become a quantum physicist or discover new math previously unknown to humanity — but everyone can benefit from basic competence in math. So what’s going on?

To do math you have to try, practice your skills, and work problems. In American culture the idea of The Natural is a pervasive myth. It makes it easy to believe that you are either good at something or bad at it. This has the unfortunate side effect of denigrating the worth of hard work. The set of things you are good at or bad at form a core part of your identity. This leads to a chilling conclusion.

Many people with math anxiety imagine that mathematical incompetence is part of their identity!

Occupy Math has spoken against the belief that women are bad at math on several occasions — and a part of this belief is a feeling that skill at math is not a feminine quality. Many men lack tolerance for a female partner who is smarter than they are, creating another pressure for some women to adopt “bad at math” as part of their identity. The American belief that skill is an intrinsic quality, rather than the result of hard work, combines with such pressures to create an environment in which it is easy to give up on math without trying.

Adopting a lack of mathematical ability as part of your identity is a real problem, and it is part of a larger problem. Occupy Math’s editor spent a year volunteering with AmeriCorps running a “Safe to be Smart” program at a public library in Rochester, New York. The part of the city where the library was located was an area where, if you were smart, you got told “oh, you’re too good for us now.” The library provided a safe space for students that wanted to study, with Occupy Math’s editor as a resource person and monitor.

The identity of young people in the neighborhood included not being smart and that identity was enforced with social sanctions.

Occupy Math has encountered a weaker version of this problem in person. He was once having lunch at a restaurant with fellow students and one of his friends computed the tip in her head. One of the other students said “What a nerd!” This nitwit was mocking Occupy Math’s friend for being able to multiply in her head. At the time Occupy Math’s reaction did not go beyond thinking the guy was a nitwit — but this sort of mocking is all too common. So, is there any good news to be had in all this?

Your innate ability is not under your control — but your identity is.

Occupy Math has written thousands of words documenting the benefits of even modest mathematical competence, from controlling your finances to spotting when someone is trying to rip you off. He is far from alone in documenting these benefits. So: if you have a lack of math skill, it is a curable condition. As long as you are willing to work, you can gain the skills and benefits of being math-enabled. The understanding that lack of ability is not a real problem is growing. In addition to the nice article in the Atlantic cited near the beginning of the blog, the following are worth reading.

When Occupy Math was an undergraduate, China was just starting to send students to U.S. universities. This led to a myth that the Chinese were much smarter than Americans — which is absolute nonsense. The difference was that, first, the Chinese were sending us their best and, second, Chinese culture values hard work — including lots and lots of homework and practice. Chinese students, by the time they started university, have spent far more time working on their math skills and, this should be no surprise, they were much better at math on average. This experience demonstrates that math can be learned by working at it. While these foreign students all excelled to earn their place, many of them were here for agriculture, not a math-heavy major.

Occupy Math does not mean to claim there are not occasional people with a remarkable talent for math. His point is, rather, that the existence of these people is not a reason to give up. The fact someone else is excellent does not mean you cannot be very good. To put it another way, the existence of NBA players doesn’t mean you cannot enjoy shooting hoops with your buds. There are many ways to learn math and they are available to pretty much everyone. A good work ethic and effective study habits are critical. Other things that will help a lot are not giving up and being willing to go get help. Occupy Math does not mock students for getting things wrong, but many of them seem to fear that he will.

A person who is paralyzed by fear of appearing foolish or stupid is in a trap, but it is a trap that they control.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt famously observed, during his first inaugural in 1933, that “We have nothing to fear but fear itself!” This is definitely true in math. Most of the difficulty that people in high school and university have with math is dealing with fear and, after that, learning good work habits. The math is seldom the problem. Occupy Math hopes this edition has given you a few things to think about — if not for yourself, then for friends or colleagues with an irrational aversion to math. Have some thoughts of your own on these issues? Please comment or tweet!

I hope to see you here again,
Daniel Ashlock,
University of Guelph,
Department of Mathematics and Statistics


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