Turn that Math Frown Upside Down

“I’m not a math person,” is quite possibly one of my least favorite phrases to hear. I rarely hear it from children. Instead, I hear it from adults, who repeatedly express to children that some people are not capable of learning math. When an adult says, “Maybe you’re just like me and you’ll never learn math,” to a child, particularly one who may have struggled with a recent concept or does indeed have a learning disability involving math, it reinforces the idea that math is some elite field only accessible to those with a certain innate understanding…math people.

That’s crap.

Mathematics is not about the ability to replicate a particular skill by following a set algorithm. Math is about making sense of problems and persevering to solve them. Math is about reasoning, developing the ability to both decontextualize to draw generalizations and contextualize to probe into the nitty-gritty details of a situation. Math allows us to understand relationships through numbers, graphs, and tables.

In our society, we highly value reading and writing. As a child, my love of reading was only encouraged by a plethora of fun programs at the library, at my school, and in my community. Each summer, my brother, my neighbor, and I would arrive an hour before the library opened so we could be the first in line for their reading program. My school participated in programs like Drop Everything and Read (D.E.A.R), where everyone in the school, from the facilities staff to the students to the principal would “drop” their activity to spend time reading. In the training required for my alternative certification teacher program, all new teachers were required to take a course in teaching literacy. As teachers from across the content areas, we were able to collaborate on literacy strategies and how they could be applied in our different classrooms. I’ve never heard anyone say, “I’m not a reading person.”*

Don’t get me wrong. Reading is important. Extremely important. In mathematics, just as much as in social studies, art, science, or any other subject, it’s essential to read for information, construct viable arguments, critique reasoning, and communicate findings, among other things. But math is important too. As Galileo said, “The great book of nature can be read only by those who know the language in which it was written. And that language is mathematics.”

Beyond budgets, gas mileage, shopping, and other standard answers to the “When will I ever need to know this?” question, I would argue that my sense of mathematical reasoning permeates my decision-making processes, ultimately impacting nearly everything I do. Math needs to be an important part of our country’s future, if we intend to compete in the global marketplace.

If we as a society treated math the way we have come to treat reading, as not just an academic skill or a necessity for testing, but as an integral part of life, an essential tool for citizenship, then perhaps we wouldn’t have the workforce crisis we do today. Perhaps if adults buckled up, despite whatever negative experiences they have had with math, and let children decide on their own how they felt about math, without the damning label “not a math person” stamped on their consciousness, there wouldn’t be such anxiety around math. Maybe if teachers develop better tools and strategies to teach math, the next generation (not this one) won’t see math as an elite subject but rather as a fun way to understand the world. Maybe we’ll be okay.

In the meantime, I’d encourage all of us to treat learning math the way we treat learning reading: Sometimes it’s hard, but it’s worth it. Sometimes it’s confusing, but it’s worth it. Because once in while, it will blow your mind out of the water with awesomeness, and, as an added bonus, open up new career fields and opportunities. That’s worth it.

*Note that I think this is reflective of society’s disparate expectations of literacy and mathematics ability. I do not think there is a different number of people predisposed to reading compared to math.

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