I remember the exact moment when I completely gave up on math. When I was in seventh grade, I hit a wall in geometry. I told my teacher I was worried I just wasn’t “good” at math. “No problem,” he told me. “Some people are left-brained and good at math and logic, while others are right-brained and good at being creative.”
Well, I know now that’s completely bogus. But unfortunately it turned me away from math entirely and confirmed what I’d been thinking—I just wasn’t a “math person”.
My geometry teacher’s advice reflected the tightly held notion that our brains are wired to be either good or bad at math. But an evolving body of research continues to show that math as an innate ability is a myth. Little plus and minus signs aren’t hiding within the double helixes of our DNA, determining whether we’re capable of high school algebra. Like for any other discipline, success in math comes from a variety of things, including resources, interest, and practice.
Economics professor Miles Kimball and finance professor Noah Smith recently described this phenomenon in The Atlantic. They argue the myth that math ability and intelligence in general—is innate and unchangeable squanders an immeasurable amount of talent and potential in our nation’s students.
Kimball and Smith agree that natural talent may play a role in some of the most elite mathematicians’ success. But natural ability doesn’t come into play as much as we might think for the kind of math that stumped me and so many American students, and stops them from pursuing STEM careers down the line. “For high-school math, inborn talent is much less important than hard work, preparation, and self-confidence,” they write.
The concept of inborn talent still weighs heavily on us from a young age, though. After that experience in 7th grade, I started off the first day of math class with my head down, believing I was already doomed because my “left brain” just wasn’t cut out for this stuff. Of course, it was a self-fulfilling prophecy, exacerbated by difficult material and nasty quiz scores that I took as further evidence of my innate lack of math talent. A couple years later, I decided to opt out of high school chemistry entirely. To this day I’ve never taken a chemistry class, all because I heard math was somehow involved.
A study by the University of Illinois found when young children believed their ability to perform certain tasks depended on natural ability, it had adverse consequences on their achievement after controlling for other variables.
The idea that math ability is like height or hair color affects everyone, but its effects are most potent for girls (like me), who seem to cling to the idea of innate math ability more than boys do, according to a study done conducted by Carol Dweck, a national leader in motivation research.
How do we help all kids believe they can succeed in STEM subjects?
As she explained in her 2006 paper, “Is Math a Gift? Beliefs That Put Females At Risk,” Dweck and fellow Stanford researcher Heidi Grant conducted another study in 2003 in which they examined a pre-med chemistry class at Columbia University. Among women who thought of intellectual ability as a “gift” or a fixed-ability, there was the typical achievement gap. But for the women who thought they could develop intellectual skills? The gender difference was reversed and those female students received higher final grades.
“The vulnerability seems to reside more in the [students] who see their ability as something that is fixed and that can be judged from their performance—so that when they hit challenges, their ability comes into question: If you have to struggle, then you must not have the gift. If your initial grades are poor, you must not have the gift,” wrote Dweck about the study.
The concept also affects kids from low-income families, who come to math class with less summer math practice, tutoring, and extra-curricular STEM activities than their higher income peers. As Kimball and Smith explain, lower-income kids too often interpret this lack of experience as lack of ability as their higher-income peers pass them up.
Thanks to my seventh grade math teacher, however well meaning he was, there’s an entire world of math and science I’ve never explored, and many fascinating career options that I never even considered. I’m lucky that I went on to do something I love, but my teacher introducing the idea that math was a talent I just didn’t have potentially squashed future interests, and made the rest of my math career in school pretty loathsome.
So how do we change the narrative? How do we help all kids believe they can succeed in STEM subjects and even become a mathematician or an astrophysicist if they’re interested and willing to practice? Several Pittsburgh organizations have the right idea—they’re sparking passion early and providing hands-on experiences.
One after school program, TechGYRLS, introduces girls to STEM careers by providing hands-on design and engineering challenges. The girls also meet with professional mentors who have STEM backgrounds. They’ve built robots, lifted fingerprints, and designed working boats.
WQED is expanding its Design Lives Here program, a hands-on engineering and design competition where kids complete challenges with help from local engineering mentors. Through trial and error, kids figure out tasks like how to move a ping-pong ball down a zip line and eventually invent a solution to a common problem.
Programs like these show kids the process that goes on behind STEM, and lets them experience first-hand the feeling of succeeding through practice and old fashioned grit—something I could have used in my middle school days.
“Perhaps people want to believe in innate gifts over earned abilities,” writes Dweck. “That way they can put high achievers on a pedestal and see them as different from others. Well, they are different from others, but I’m inclined to put more value on the process that got them there than on some ability they came with.”