Do You Possess the Math Gene?

Do you consider yourself a math minded person? Did you struggle with math in school? Do you feel stressed when calculating tips or splitting a restaurant bill? Did you choose the early learning grades to teach because of your feelings toward math? If any of these questions resonated with you, it’s okay.  It’s not a crime to feel this way.  There are many people who are intimidated by math.

I have been reading a lot of research on math anxiety in adults and its effects on children. The current research states our like or dislike of math often stems from our personal experiences with the subject. We either had a great teacher who showed us the beauty of mathematics, engaged us in rich problems and fostered our thinking mathematically, or one who taught us rules and procedures without building a strong foundation of how math works, moving us to see math as a set of disjointed problems to solve.

Upon my reading of these studies, a memory I had suppressed came to mind…

One day while driving home, my 5th grade son, very matter-of-factly said, “Mom, I wasn’t born with the math gene.”  I was dumbfounded and honestly heartbroken that my son, a GATE certified student, would say this. My kid, who liked to be challenged, who persevered when given puzzles or playing video games, who constructed these beautiful structures using Legos, and whose logical reasoning skills on many occasions scared me, didn’t feel he was good at math. I immediately jumped on my soapbox about how there was no such thing as a “math gene”, how everyone is a mathematician but they just don’t know it. I went on and on about how we (adults and children) sometimes don’t understand math because of the way we were taught, how learning rules and tricks sometimes get in the way of understanding, and how we (teachers) need to be open to the approaches our students take when given problems to solve (there is not always one way to get to an answer).

When I finally stopped my rant, my son gave me the look (you know, the look that acknowledges you… the “I heard you but whatever” look) and said “Mom, my teacher said, “I must do math his way, but I don’t understand his way.”  Being an educator, those words coming from my son, was a punch to the gut.  It made me reflect on my previous teaching practices and emphasized how much more important my job was as a teacher on special assignment supporting teachers in mathematics.

I wonder when my son first felt like he didn’t have the “math gene”.  I don’t think this is a feeling he acquired in 5th grade, his perception of himself not being good at math must have begun earlier.

The onset of math anxiety begins early.  Through my job here at the AIMS Center, I am noticing that some students are experiencing math anxiety as young as 3 years of age. I have seen children who would rather say nothing than to respond incorrectly, children who tend to observe others before engaging in the activities we present, and a few who have said “I can’t do it” without even trying.

For these students who, like my son, do not think they are good at math, it is more important that we mathematize their worlds, we engage them in joyful mathematical play, we encourage them, and we celebrate their thinking.


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