Breaking Math Myths

We have all learned mathematics in school with more or less success. Some people got rid of math as soon as they could, while others went on to university to pursue a STEM degree. In one way or another, all of us were influenced by at least one of the numerous existing myths about mathematics. In this article, we discuss six of the most recurrent myths.

1. The genious myth

The idea that math ability is innate for some people is vastly spread and terribly damaging in the field of mathematics. 

Many of us have been led to believe that some people are good at math because their brain is wired differently. If you are successful in mathematics, then you are smarter than the rest. If you do not happen to be a math person, you will just have to learn to endure math.
Luckily, research has proved this idea completely false, as there is no such “math gene” that is inherited from parent to child. In fact, everyone can learn math to the highest levels if exposed to the right experiences.

There is a lot of research done in the area of Growth Mindset (Dweck, 2008), which highlights the concept of effort and self-confidence as a key to success in any field, particularly in mathematics.

2. The good memory myth

For decades, memory has played a key role in math class. As kids, we started by memorizing all the sums of one-digit plus one-digit numbers, to then move on to times tables and geometry formulas. 

In fact, we did not need to understand the concept of multiplication to be able to multiply or get a good grade in a multiplication test. We just had to memorize procedures and regurgitate accurately. Those students for whom memorizing facts, rules, and formulas come easily are usually those who are considered good math students in elementary school.

Around Ninth or Tenth Grade, many of these students hit a wall in mathematics class, as they are unable to connect all the information they have stored for years in a meaningful way. 

Nowadays, we know that students have to manipulate, draw, and play with concepts first. This exposure to concepts will eventually lead to learning facts from memory. Understanding is always the starting point.

3. The gender myth

The Gender Myth is another damaging idea still prevailing in mathematics. There is some belief around the idea that boys are better at math and sciences than girls. We have always thought that in order to do mathematics you need the left hemisphere of your brain to be more active since it performs tasks that have to do with logic. 

We commonly believe that boys have a more predominant left side, whereas girls’ brains are more creative and artistic, for which the right side of the brain is responsible. 

At some point, many societies just thought it natural to believe that girls were not fit for math and sciences since their brains could “not find the logic in them.” All these assumptions are now known to be false. 

It is in fact true that on average boys score higher than girls in high-school math, as the PISA reports show. There are also more men than women in STEM careers, although that tendency has already started changing at the college level in some countries. 

Nevertheless, still today, only 28% of the world’s STEM researchers are women. Different reasons can account for this situation. Overall, girls can be negatively influenced by subtle cues from female role models, such as their mothers and elementary teachers, who might have had an unsuccessful experience with mathematics. 

Another reason is, according to Jo Boaler (2015), that many girls need to know why and how the methods work. In classrooms where memorization is forced, girls have a harder time making sense of mathematics.

4. The “You can only solve the problem this way” myth

Some time during the 20th century, we started teaching math as a set of formulas and procedures that students had to memorize and reproduce, often without making sense of what they were doing. Math is in fact about creativity and making sense. A given problem can be solved by a variety of different methods, using a number of strategies. 

Students should learn to decide what strategy best suits the nature of the problem at hand. Most often than not, they will make mistakes which will push them to revise their thinking and start again from zero. Perseverance, application of thinking skills, and creativity lead to a better understanding of math.

Photo by Lum3n in Pexels

5. The speed myth

Speed is highly valued in most math classrooms. We incorrectly believe that being fast at math means being good at math. In a nutshell, we associate being fast with being smart, but this could not be further from the truth.

If we valued depth over speed, as we should, we would realize that fast computation only encourages a subset of our students and discourages deep thinkers and sense makers. In fact, we do not need to be able to compute quickly, since we already have computers and calculators to do this for us.

What we need are mathematicians who can think deeply, connect methods, reason, and justify. In schools and at home we should not value fast work, since it simply shows that it did not require much thinking, as the student was probably already familiar with this kind of problem. It has been suggested that an emphasis on speed may cause math anxiety.

6. The “I am never going to need this” myth

Mathematics is often taught as if it were a mythological creature that can only be understood if you possess special mathematical powers. It is so far removed from the “real world” that students struggle trying to connect with it or even seeing its use beyond arithmetic. 

Many people seem comfortable sharing with others that they are not good at math, which is something they would never say about reading or writing. Schools have to help students realize that mathematics is a way to understand the world around us and that there is math in everything we do. 

In Boaler’s words (2015), “when students see mathematics as a set of ideas and relationships and their role as one of thinking about the ideas and making sense of them, they have a mathematical mindset.”

By Meritxell Lucini and Sarah Boltz
Elementary Math Coaches (2018)

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