In a math professional learning session I attended in the summer of 2021, the trainers gave the teachers a math problem to work on. The other administrator and I also attempted the problem. Not one of us (the teachers, the other administrator, nor myself) were able to solve the problem. Yet, during the debrief after we attempted the problem, the other administrator said "I'm not good at math" as though everyone else was more capable than she was.
Katherine H's blog post, "Solving the 'I'm not good at math' problem" demonstrates how prevalent the belief about not being good at math is.
You’ve heard it before. Or you’ve said it. I’m not good at math.
I hear it from seventh graders struggling with fractions, high school students preparing to take the SAT, friends at a restaurant when splitting a check, and even from parents assuring me that their child’s own difficulties are in fact genetic.
And while I’ve heard it countless times, I’ve never actually met a student who was unable to improve their math skills...
When I first started meeting “I’m not good at math” students, they would often tell me I just didn’t get it. How could I? I actually teach the dreaded impossible-to-understand subject. How could I understand how hard it is? I spend every single day working on math. But that’s just it, I thought. I have tons of practice.
The phrase, "I'm not good at math," is one you may have said yourself. I used to say the same thing. When I said it, I didn't mean that I was bad in math though. What I meant when I said, "I'm not good at math" was "I don't enjoy doing math as much as I enjoy reading and writing. Even though I can do math well, I am not as confident with math as I am with other subject areas"--but that's a mouthful so I condensed my feelings towards math into "I'm not good at math."
Math Fact 1: There is a world of difference between "I'm not good at math" and "I prefer other subjects to math." The first suggests I am incompetent; the second suggests I have preferences. It's the difference between "I am unable to eat" versus "I prefer vanilla over chocolate ice cream."
Math Fact 2: What I know now that I didn't know then is when I would say, "I'm not good at math" I planted the seed in people's heads that I was not capable of doing math, which simply isn't true. It is true that I love writing. I always have. It's because of this love that I when I graduated from high school I pursued a degree in English. Since New York requires teachers to earn a master's degree, I decided I would get my degree in Reading. I'm saying this because you can see I enjoy language arts.
What this doesn't tell you is when I was in my very small high school, I also was the only female in my graduating class who took four years of science. Why? I thought, "How would I know if I was supposed to be a physicist if I don't take physics?" Though I preferred writing, that didn't mean I didn't do well in or enjoy physics. I also took four years of math in high school, though I didn't need to do that either. All of this to say, even though I have a preference for reading and writing, that preference doesn't mean I'm not capable of doing math- and science-related tasks.
Math Fact 3: When I realized that my stating "I'm not good at math" caused people to question my capability, I also realized I needed to change what I said. My lack of clarity meant people mistook my preferences towards math as my capability to do math, but there is a difference. "I don't like" is not the same as "I cannot." This was also true for the administrator in training who said, "I'm not good at math." She is a fully functioning adult who literally taught math, pays taxes, and has worked in hospitality where she had to make change, calculate bills, etc. She may not be able to figure out the cosine of the angle between two vectors, but I would argue this is not a reflection of her mathematical capacity (and instead a commentary on the infrequency for most adults to perform this task).
In fact, I cautioned her against saying, "I'm not good at math." When using those words, people will interpret what you're saying as a capacity deficit rather than a preference. Interestingly, though she agreed, she also said when she was in school, she was taught math in a manner that didn't explain the mathematical reasoning behind the computations. Thus, she was taught to "plug and chug." Her lack of mathematical understanding impacted her capability and confidence in math and has caused her to lose sight of her mathematical capacity as an adult. In other words, her feelings about her capacity as a child have impacted her feelings about her confidence with math as an adult.
Math Fact 4: For me, this is heart-breaking. Though I love reading and writing, I definitely did not love Shakespeare as a student. In fact, I hated it so much I managed to graduate with a B.A. in English without taking a single course on Shakespeare in college (trust me, I am not bragging about this...teaching Shakespeare would have been easier, I suspect, had I taken a college-level course). Even so, just because I didn't like Shakespeare as a student didn't mean I am not capable or confident with language arts. It's sad, but many people (children and adults) who can read well do not enjoy reading for pleasure. This is the difference between capability and interest--just because you don't enjoy doing something doesn't mean you are unable to do it. While we more readily acknowledge this difference in reading interest versus reading skill, we are less quick to do so with math interest versus math skill.
The bottom line is we need to be careful with the words we use about ourselves because they impact the way we think about ourselves and the way others think about us. We are also role models for others--be it our students, our children, or our colleagues. When they hear us say things like, "I'm not good at that," we can send the wrong message about who we are and who they can be.
P.S. If we're having a conversation, I'm likely to ask you about what you're reading because I love to read. That said, most of the books I read lately I read with my ears because I love audiobooks! (In fact, I'm going to start recording Engagement is Not a Unicorn (It's a Narwhal soon.) Audiobooks allow me to "read" while driving, folding the laundry, making dinner, running, etc.
My love for audiobooks is why my favorite app on my phone is my Overdrive app. Overdrive is free and allows me to borrow ebooks and audiobooks from my local libraries on my phone. The books are wirelessly delivered and available for 7, 14, or 21 days (depending on the library's borrowing time limits). I can put books on my "wish list" so I always have a list of books that I am interested in so I don't have to remember the titles. I can also get on a waiting list for the popular books and I get emails to let me know the book is available. When the borrowing window expires, the book automatically is returned so I never have any late fees. If I hadn't finished the book yet, I can renew and the app remembers where I was in the book so I never have to find my place. I LOVE this app!