Recently, Quartz magazine published an article co-written by Miles Kimball, an economics professor at the University of Michigan, and Noah Smith, an assistant professor of Finance at Stony Brook University. Both bloggers talk math a LOT.
The article, titled “There’s One Key Difference Between Kids Who Excel at Math and Those Who Don’t,” outlines the psychology behind America’s “math people” and, well, the rest of us. Here’s the pattern they observe as professors and tutors all the time:
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.
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.
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.
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.
As a former “I’m just not a math person,” I know all too well how true this pattern can be. My issue was even worse — because I didn’t have to study hard at all for English, History or Languages, I assumed that I must “just not be a math person” because I had to, you know, work for a second to understand what was going on. The excuse “I’m just not a math person” kept me from understanding the value of hard work for longer than it should have.
That is, until I got a job. There is no job out there where math is not required. My first job was in publishing, where all the literary majors flock. And guess what? Lots of math. I had to calculate the agency’s percent of a deal off the top of my head at a moment’s notice. I had to evaluate the value of a contract, looking at future earnings. Actually, my favorite math story at that job was when a famous movie star (I won’t tell you who it is, but his name rhymes with Mal Schmaschino) tested an assistant on his movie earnings if it were 20 percent, 30 percent, 35, keep going. Bear in mind that assistant probably graduated with a comparative arts degree from Dartmouth or somewhere about.
The point is, the swiftest cure for feeling like “you’re just not a math person” is realizing that you have to do it, and then doing it. When we separate school work from real-world demands, it can be just as detrimental to self-esteem as not making the hockey team or landing a supporting role in the school play. I felt a lot better about myself in general once I realized that not only was I competent at math, but it wasn’t even a question anymore.