Argument: The Myth of ‘I’m Bad at Math’

Two professors argue being good at math is about hard work, not about genetics:

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…

Again and again, we have seen the following pattern repeat itself:

  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.

Interesting argument: if you believe you can’t do well at a subject, you probably won’t. The authors then go on to hint at broader social beliefs: Americans tend to believe in talent, other countries tend to emphasize the value of hard work.

This lines up with what I was recently reading about athletes in The Sports Gene. The author reviews a lot of research that suggests training and genetics both matter. But, genetics may not matter in the way people typically think they do – more often, it matters less that people are “naturally gifted” and more that some learn quick than others. So, the 10,000 hours to become an expert, an idea popularized by Malcolm Gladwell, is the average time it takes one to become an expert. However, some people can do it much more quickly, some much more slowly due to their different rates of learning.

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