I’m just not a “maths person”

Mother comforting sad daughter by telling her, "It's ok - we're just not maths people."

What if we are ALL maths people, but some of us have been led to believe we’re not? And what if we’re passing on to our kids a detrimental preconception about maths?

Is there even such a thing as a “maths person”???

When I hear this phrase used, it’s mostly by parents talking about themselves as an explanation for why their child might be falling behind in maths: “She gets that from me.” And then sometimes it is by a student, and I can’t help but wonder to myself where they picked up that belief…

When I hear it, I sense that people are talking about an innate biological deficiency they were born with and could never have overcome.

I can agree there are biological factors, and early-developmental factors, which foster or hinder certain ways of thinking. And this can lead to a propensity for some subjects over others. But I can’t get on board with the idea that some kids should just stop trying in maths because they think they’re just not cut out for it.

That’s what I see some kids doing: Giving up, because they think “I’m not a maths person.”

If there is such a thing as a maths person, then a healthier outlook would be that we can all be maths people if we want to be. No matter our current situation, it is possible for all of us:

  • to improve our mathematical abilities,
  • to realise the mathematical thinking we have already developed,
  • to rebuild confidence in maths, and
  • to achieve results we thought might not be possible.

So how are such unhelpful beliefs instilling themselves in children? What are the causes, the consequences, and how do we counter it?

Lao Tzu Quote: Thoughts become words which become actions, which become habits, which become character, which becomes your destiny.

What’s the harm?

Hearing adults use the phrase ‘maths person’ (even if it might just be shorthand for saying that you struggled with maths at school yourself), suggests we’re all split into two groups: maths people and non-maths people. It starts students wondering whether they too might be a non-maths person, “just like Mum/Dad.”

It creates a foothold for confirmation bias – we are all fantastic at focusing on the certain pieces of evidence which confirm our existing beliefs while ignoring the bucket-loads of the evidence to the contrary.

On this slippery slope, every wrong answer, every test result that isn’t A+, every single thing they don’t understand in class, all confirm their suspicions. They devalue or ignore all the things they do understand in class, and all the correct answers, and any progress they make.

Once a student starts picking out evidence to confirm to themselves that they might not be a maths person, it gives them an excuse to never work at improving their maths skills.

Before they even engage with new maths content, they “know” in their heart of hearts that it is a losing battle, not worth wasting effort on. “Other people have what it takes to understand this, but I can never be like them, no matter how I try.”

It is insidious, and so, so counterproductive.

As an experienced maths teacher, I know I can extend most people’s understanding in maths. I can link the ideas they already have to the ideas they need to develop to understand new concepts. But if a student thinks they’re not a maths person, we have such a cognitive hurdle in the way of progress, it takes so much more effort for both of us!

It becomes self-fulfilling: A large part of the struggle to learn comes from having closed their minds to the idea that they can learn.

To break the cycle, one of our big tricks is to teach maths in advance, rather than waiting for school to introduce the topic. If we already know that students haven’t been picking up enough of what’s going on in class anyway, why wait for that to happen again and always be playing catch-up. Why not learn it with us first, and then get more out of their school classes, proving to themselves that they are as capable as others.

So, are you a maths person?

If your instinct was to think, “No,” where did you develop that idea?

Did an unthinking or overworked teacher give you that impression by diminishing your efforts? Did a parent tell you condolingly, “It’s ok; I was never a maths person either”? Was it Cs and Ds on a piece of paper at the end of terms that broke your spirit? Was it the stress you felt walking into maths classes and exams you thought no one else was feeling? Is it because you compared your progress to others and decided that because you didn’t seem to learn as fast as them that there must be something wrong with you?

Or do you use the phrase as a crutch to hide internalised shame at never feeling as comfortable with maths as you perceived others to be?

Perhaps you’ve grown comfortable with your maths shame as an adult – after all, you turned out fine without maths – but do you really think it was all inevitable biology? Under different circumstances, could you not have believed in yourself more and achieved more?

It is so human for us to blame ourselves when we feel we haven’t met expectations – our own expectations or what we perceive are others’ expectations for us.

But when judging their success in maths, do students even realise all the other factors that are at play?

Would you want any of the above scenarios to encourage your child to lump themselves in the imaginary non-maths person group… to give up on improving their mathematical abilities?


What to do instead

Staring at a report of Cs, Ds and Fs feels like you’re staring into a mirror to evaluate your self-worth. But what the report shows is not a true reflection of a student. It’s just an indicator which should be taken together with so, so, so many other indicators when building a picture of a child’s academic progress. But it can feel to the student like it is everything, like anything other than an A is a failure.

Students’ self-confidence compounds over time. Poor self-confidence over years roots itself deeply into habits of thinking. To weed it out takes persistence over time. We have various tactics to shortcut this process back to positive self-confidence, but foremostly, any time we see a weed of self-doubt spring up, we pluck it immediately. We never let it grow unchecked.

We staunchly counter all and any negative self-talk we hear fall from students’ lips. Even when they veil it in humour. Even when it is unsaid, but we see it in their eyes. In that moment, we find some indisputable evidence, a little positive indicator, and we point to that and call B.S. on the negativity.

Emphasise effort and progress. De-emphasise poor grades.

We reward effort with praise even when the effort didn’t achieve the results the student hoped for. When facing another less-than-A+ grade, the student will more than likely be disappointed, whether they say so or they cover with a brave face or nonchalance. For so many reasons, it can be hard for progress to be reflected in grades. If a student put in extra effort this time and a report seems to show it to lead to absolutely zilch improvement, they won’t be incentivised to keep up the effort, unless we de-emphasise the grades and instead praise the effort and progress.

Effort in itself is worthy of praise. A good effort which resulted in a wrong answer is still exactly the kind of positive behaviour we need to congratulate and encourage them to do again. Effort means they have started to shed the mantle of low self-confidence that has been weighing them down. The same effort that leads to wrong answers also leads to right answers. Without reapplying the same effort that led to a ‘wrong’ answer, they will never achieve right answers. Moreover, though it sounds cliché, every mistake is a valuable learning opportunity, so we shouldn’t avoid them by just not trying.


We are ALL maths people

Maths is everywhere, whether people realise it or not. School can give an overly narrow view of mathematics – numbers, symbols, algebra, graphs. But those are just the tools of maths; everybody engages in mathematical thinking in the daily lives, whether they realise it or not; whether they think of numbers and sums and functions, or they use more intuition, trial and error, real-world experimentation…

Those who don’t do well at school maths go on to live lives oblivious to how the tools of maths might apply to their lives – and that’s fine. Mathematicians realise that maths is in everything, just as artists see art in everything. But really, so many of the little problems we solve every day, perhaps without realising, are very much examples mathematical thinking. It doesn’t necessarily have to involve trigonometry or matrix calculations to count as maths.

If, in your formative years, you had not been exposed to the idea that you might not be a maths person… if you had been given the right circumstances to allow your mathematical skills to deepen and broaden, you would naturally be applying concepts such as probability and geometry and optimisation in your everyday thinking… and you would not ever think to refer to yourself, or anyone, as ‘not a maths person’.

Room full of people enjoying maths but one saying, "I'm just not a maths person."

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About the Author: Dan Blore
Dan Blore manages and teaches at Extended Learning Centres. He has spent 20 years in education, having studied secondary education at University of the Sunshine Coast. He has taught in Australia and Germany and studied at university in Italy. He most enjoys teaching and studying mathematics and languages, both of which he focused on at university.

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