For high school math, inborn talent is much less important than hard work, preparation and self-confidence.
How do we know this? First of all, both of us have taught math for many years — as professors, teaching assistants and private tutors. Again and again, we have seen the following pattern repeat itself:
Different kids with different levels of preparation come into a math class. Some of these kids have parents who have drilled them on math from a young age, while others never had that kind of parental input.
On the first few tests, the well-prepared kids get perfect scores, while the unprepared kids get only what they could figure out by winging it — maybe 80 or 85 percent, a solid B.
The unprepared kids, not realizing that the top scorers were well-prepared, assume that genetic ability was what determined the performance differences. Deciding that they “just aren’t math people,” they don’t try hard in future classes and fall further behind.
The well-prepared kids, not realizing that the B students were simply unprepared, assume that they are “math people,” and work hard in the future, cementing their advantage.
Thus, people’s belief that math ability can’t change becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
So why do we focus on math? For one thing, math skills are increasingly important for getting good jobs these days — so believing you can’t learn math is especially self-destructive. But we also believe that math is the area where America’s “fallacy of inborn ability” is the most entrenched. Math is the great mental bogeyman of an unconfident America. If we can convince you that anyone can learn math, it should be a short step to convincing you that you can learn just about anything, if you work hard enough.
Is America more susceptible than other nations to the dangerous idea of genetic math ability? Here our evidence is only anecdotal, but we suspect that this is the case. While American fourth- and eighth-graders score quite well in international math comparisons — beating countries like Germany, the U.K. and Sweden — our high-schoolers underperform those countries by a wide margin. This suggests that Americans’ native ability is just as good as anyone’s, but that we fail to capitalize on that ability through hard work.
In response to the lackluster high school math performance, some influential voices in American education policy have suggested simply teaching less math — for example, Andrew Hacker has called for algebra to no longer be a requirement. The subtext, of course, is that large numbers of American kids are simply not born with the ability to solve for x.
We believe that this approach is disastrous and wrong. First of all, it leaves many Americans ill-prepared to compete in a global marketplace with hardworking foreigners. But even more important, it may contribute to inequality. A great deal of research has shown that technical skills in areas like software are increasingly making the difference between America’s upper middle class and its working class. While we don’t think education is a cure-all for inequality, we definitely believe that in an increasingly automated workplace, Americans who give up on math are selling themselves short.
Too many Americans go through life terrified of equations and mathematical symbols. What many of them are afraid of is “proving” themselves to be genetically inferior by failing to instantly comprehend the equations (when, of course, in reality, even a math professor would have to read closely). So they recoil from anything that looks like math, protesting: “I’m not a math person.” And so they exclude themselves from quite a few lucrative career opportunities. This has to stop.