Do You Have to Be a "Math Person" to Succeed in Math?

Acknowledgement – This article draws heavily on the teachings and research of Dr. Jo Boaler, Professor of Mathematics Education at Stanford University. Dr. Boaler has conducted research comparing traditional math education approaches to more innovative approaches that include discovery and group learning. She promotes mathematics education reform and has spearheaded efforts to educate teachers and the public about the benefits to student learning of approaches that seek to get students more actively engaged in math learning.
A middle school math teacher recently shared a story. She was tutoring a 7th grader in pre-algebra when before long the student let out a deep sigh and said "I’m just not good at math!" Most math teachers have heard those words from students having difficulty with math. And when a student feels that way it can be a difficult obstacle to overcome. The student may feel that there’s no point in even trying to learn math since they won’t succeed anyway, and so they are reluctant to make the effort.


Aside – Isn’t it curious that we never hear students say "I’m just not good at language arts (or science, or history)!" It’s always math.


Is it true, then, that, some students are destined to do poorly in math? Despite the common belief that you are either a math person or not, a growing body of evidence indicates that all students have the potential to do well in math.


How is it, then, that some students have come to the grim conclusion that they aren’t good at math? The way we feel about math, and the confidence we have in our math skills, are mostly the result of our experiences. The sad truth is that math learning, especially in the earlier grades, often stresses repetition and memorization.


But math doesn’t have to be taught that way. Instead of being abstract and dry, math can be shown as a living thing, part of our everyday lives, and we can learn and experience it in different ways. Some children can benefit by working with other children and talking about how to solve a problem. Students may also benefit by using manipulatives, even string, to bring a physical "hands on" experience to the learning of math concepts and problem solving.


Young students are naturally curious and creative, and when they experience learning through discovery they can develop a more positive attitude about math and learning in general.


This approach can yield powerful benefits. Not only is the student learning a lesson and getting positive reinforcement through their achievement, but they are discovering that learning in general, in any subject, can be achieved in different ways. And that is a lesson that will reap rewards beyond the school years.


Research has shown that the act of learning causes electrical activity in the brain. The connections between neurons, called synapses, are strengthened. In many ways the brain is like a muscle, growing and strengthening in response to greater workloads and new challenges. As students experience math learning in multiple ways, new learning pathways are formed and the connections between neurons are strengthened.


As students learn and experience math in new ways, and as they see math as an integral part of the physical world, they will also be well prepared for success in curriculums that emphasize STEM education.