I’m just not good at math (cue the laughter)

“I’m just not good at math.”

How many times have you heard a version of this phrase? Have you said it yourself? Children and adults say this all of the time. Sometimes it’s meant as a joke, but I would guess that most of the time people saying this mean it – at least to some degree. Math may be the most common subject, but people say this about other subjects as well: science, writing, reading, sports, music, and more. This raises the question – why are we not good at things?

The idea of being skilled at a task seems to be something of a paradox to most people. Most people understand that things like reading, playing guitar, and making a free throw aren’t skills that you are born with. However, phrases like, “No one in our family has any musical talent, I don’t know where she gets it from” are common. Even though people know strumming a guitar isn’t some genetic skill, they still act like you either have it or you don’t.
Children (and adults) need to be reminded that if they can’t do something, it is almost always because they just haven’t practiced the appropriate skills yet.

Let’s consider basketball. If you have never shot a basket before and you start trying to make a basket, will you improve? Of course you will! Even if no one ever shows you how to do it, and assuming you meet some minimum strength requirement of getting the ball high enough in the air, you will get better at making a basket. Eventually you will hit a plateau, probably due to poor technique that needs to be corrected with coaching. This is a major problem in most highly technical skills; once you learn to do something incorrectly it is very hard to change your technique. If you do learn the proper technique, and you continue to practice hard every day, will you eventually become an NBA player? Maybe, but of course the answer is probably not because only the absolute best of the best reach that level of performance.

Almost everyone can get better at almost everything with proper practice. That doesn’t mean that you will be the best in the world at it, and this is something that is sometimes overlooked in education. People at the absolute top of their fields – Broadway singers, astrophysicists, Olympic weightlifters, or NFL players usually do have an advantage that is not due to practice. People that are in this position combine a genetic advantage with determination and practice. There is a lot of space between, “I’m not good at this so why try” and being a gold medalist at the Olympics. While it is important to strive to be the best you can be at things, it is also important to focus on consistent improvement, even if it is very slow. The fact is that people at any age can get better at math, reading, guitar playing, weight lifting, jogging, and anything else. Some skills you can improve at with almost no guidance at all. If you have never really exercised before, you can probably increase your endurance with no guidance whatsoever. Just start walking or jogging every day. Other skills, and math is definitely one of them, are not things that you can likely learn how to do without guidance.

So if a student can’t figure something out in school, and in particular in math, what is the reason?

1. They have never been shown how to complete the problem.

2. They haven’t practiced completing the problem enough.

3. They practiced completing the problem, but kept making mistakes and learned something incorrectly.

4. They learned how to complete the problem a long time ago, but forgot how to do it.

5. The problem consists of several different skills, and one or more of those skills they don’t know how to do correctly.

6. They aren’t motivated to complete the problem, perhaps because they don’t think they can.

Everything I have talked about so far in this post leads, of course, to the last point. Once students think they can’t do something it will be very hard for them to ever learn it. It’s also important to remember that there is a major difference between a student thinking something is hard and thinking something is impossible. If a student is struggling in math by second grade and starts to think they are bad at it, how will they approach math after 3, 4, or 9 more years of sitting through math class?

It is very important that when students run into trouble in any subject they are taught to think about it as something they can’t do yet, not something that is simply beyond their mental abilities. Kids (or their peers) can classify themselves as a smart kid or being bad or good at math pretty early in school. When a student is struggling with something, the teacher or parent needs to break down why they aren’t getting it. A common solution is to simply teach the new subject a different way, and I think this can be both good and bad. That approach goes wrong when the student gets overwhelmed by different strategies and then has trouble remembering how to properly apply any one strategy. Sometimes the student needs to review previous material or needs more practice at the initially taught strategy rather than a new strategy.

Here are a few tips to summarize:

1. Don’t let students say they are bad at an academic skill! Always counter with something along the lines of, “You just haven’t learned how to do it yet.”

2. If a student is making the same mistake more than a few times in a row, you need to stop them and address it. Practicing the wrong thing means learning how to do something incorrectly.

3. Use analogies with students. No one is born shredding on a guitar, and no one is born sinking 3 pointers on the basketball court. Furthermore, no one learns how to do either of those things without at least some quality coaching and teaching.

4. Some tasks require a lot of skills to complete and students need to understand that. You can’t program a video game without knowing something about graphics, animation, programming in multiple languages, digital music creation, and so on. Likewise, you can’t do advanced math until you can add, subtract, multiply, divide, etc. If one of these skills is missing, you need to keep practicing.

5. You may need to remind adults of this! Just because you are over 40 doesn’t mean you can’t learn new math skills, throw a football, or learn karate.

You may want to check out “Growth Mindset”, which is a term that is extremely popular in education and business right now. It comes from the researcher Carol Dweck, and at this point many people have written about it. While this post is not really about Growth Mindset specifically, it may have reminded you of it if you have heard this term before. The very basic idea is similar to what I talked about here – you need to teach students to have the mindset that they can always improve through hard work, and correct and avoid the mindset that I discussed here, “I’m just bad at math.”

If you have a comment, I would love to hear it. Email us or comment directly.