January 8, 2015

Math: Gift vs Ability

I was in line at the grocery store and the woman ahead of me purchased $37.13 worth of groceries and she handed the cashier $40. The cashier looking very distressed had just realized that the computer was acting up “again” and she was not able to type in the amount of cash and then have it tell her the amount of change to give back. As she was getting her calculator, I told her the change was $2.87. The cashier and the customer had looks of amazement written all over their face. I quickly told them that I am a math teacher, because I didn’t want them to feel bad and they smiled and laughed. The customer replied, “oh that explains it, I was not given that gift.”

Is learning math a gift or an ability?

There is a general belief that being able to do math (even simple arithmetic) is somehow this mystical gift that is given only to a select few. In the classroom, by the time students made it to my class (11th and 12th grades) there often were some pretty serious gaps in foundational skills, but the students with these gaps assured me that they had always struggled and they hated math because they were not blessed with that ever elusive “gift”. I have always believed that anyone who wanted to learn math could if they were willing to work at. So who is right? Is it a “gift” or is it “ability” – a skill that each individual has the power to themselves to develop?

What does the psychology say?

A study conducted by Stanford University showed that students who viewed math as a gift, something that is set from birth, tended to perform much more poorly than those who viewed it as an ability within their own control to improve. The National Center for Biotechnology Information also found a link between performance when a student believes that math ability is a gift. I could literally finish this article with link after link to studies that have consistently shown the same.

Key takeaway: Believe in yourself!

I have always loved math! I love numbers, I love solving math puzzles, working through problems, etc. To me, it is simply fun. However, I can relate in one sense because I had intended to major in Math and English. I received encouragement in both areas of study from my teachers until the 12th grade. To this day I remember my teacher telling me that I was not a writer and would never be one. Either you are a writer or you aren’t was the message. That shattered any confidence I might have had and from then on I veered away from anything having to do with writing!

The fact is, anyone who wants to improve on something and is willing to work at improving can improve. I allowed that one teacher to shape the way I thought about my writing abilities (or lack of). Math ability is the same, the more you practice, the better you become.

Let me leave you with a quote:

“Turns out DNA does not determine whether we’re capable of high school algebra. To succeed in STEM, experts say, kids need opportunity, hard work, and to believe in themselves.”