"I'm Just Not A Math Person!"
How to Not Suck At Math, part 5
This is part of a new series about how to help yourself or your kids improve in mathematics. It’s based partly on my own experience of having to learn how to learn mathematics, partly on extensive tutoring experience, and partly on many conversations with homeschooling parents, as well as parents struggling to understand Common Core mathematics. Many future editions are already planned, but feel free to leave suggestions for future editions in the comments (open for paid subscribers) or by email to hollymathnerd at gmail dot com.
I may put future editions behind the paywall; I’m not sure yet. If you want to subscribe to be sure you get them all, this link will give you 10% off. If you can’t afford a paid subscription, email me and I’ll give you a free one.
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Previous posts in the series:
“I’m Just Not A Math Person!”
Imagine a scene with me.
Your son is fifteen years, ten months old. You take him out for what you intend to be the first of many driving lessons.
It doesn’t go very well. No accidents, no getting pulled over, but the simultaneous need to control speed, direction, hand placement on the wheel, awareness of three mirrors, awareness of other cars, and trying to incorporate your instructions—it’s all frustrating and overwhelming.
When the driving lesson ends, your son turns to you and says:
“No offense, but I’m done. Not doing that again. It’s just not my thing. I’m just not a driving person.”
You immediately reply, “You have to learn to drive. You don’t want to—”
Anticipating your challenge, your child interrupts.
“There’s public transportation, and Uber, and Lyft, and besides, the world is full of people who are driving people. I’ll get them to help me, or eventually buy a self-driving car. Don’t try, ok? You’re not going to talk me out of this. Between other people and technology, I really don’t have to understand driving myself. It’s a waste of time even if I wanted to do it, which I don’t.”
What would you say to your child?
If it were me, I’d say something like this: “No, sweetheart, you’re not a driving person yet. But driving is an important skill for adult life, and even though it’s difficult and stressful at first, you have to keep trying until you get it. It matters. You don’t get to give up. You’re also not allowed, while I’m your parent, to make this deficiency part of your identity, declare yourself “not a driving person,” and sentence yourself to dependence on others. I won’t let you go out in the world having set yourself up to be taken advantage of by not being competent at something so basic and important as driving.”
This imagined parental response probably sounds reasonable to you.
What would you say if your son still refused? If he announced, “No, I’m really not. You don’t get it. Driving is easy for you because you’re just naturally a driving person. I’m not, and you need to accept that!”
Really, what would you say?
Now imagine another scene with me.
You’ve gone out to dinner with one of your close friends, one of your mutual friends, and their respective partners. To make it easier to imagine, I’ll assign sexes and sexual orientations, but fill in your own mental images with different pictures if it will help you.
Your close friend is a gay dude with a new boyfriend.
Your mutual friend is a straight woman, also with a new boyfriend.
You haven’t met either new boyfriend, though you’ve heard a fair amount about each.
The waiter brings the menus.
One of the new boyfriends—it doesn’t matter which—hands his menu to his partner.
“You know how I am with reading. You read it for me and tell me what to order.”
You look up, a little startled.
You remember that one of your favorite people on earth is dyslexic, and while you wouldn’t typically ask such a personal question on a first meeting…well, he’s the one who brought it up. So you go ahead and say what you’re thinking.
“If I may ask, are you dyslexic? No judgment, I’m just curious. I tutor a dyslexic boy, and one of my best friends is dyslexic, so I know a fair amount about it.”
“No, I’m just not a reading person. I tried to learn to read in school but I never could. Honestly I just never saw the point. I’m jealous of reading people, though. It must be so nice to have reading come easily. But that’s just not me.”
Pause there. Hold in your mind the way you would react, and what you would want to say at that moment, even if you wouldn’t actually say it.
Now let’s imagine a different scene, with the same characters. This time, when the menus come, everyone orders normally.
The five of you have a great time, with lots of laughter and the consumption of a good deal of wine.
When the time comes, the two new boyfriends insist on paying for themselves and their dates, but varying amounts of expensive wine were consumed by the three groups (the gay dudes, the straight couple, and you), which makes each group’s true portion of the bill a bit complicated to ascertain.
After a bit of ritual “are you sure?” and “you don’t have to do that” social back-and-forth, the agreement is that you’ll pay 20% and each of the new boyfriends will pay 40%.
The rough math here isn’t that complicated, so you add a 20% tip to the total and split it in your head, giving each of the new boyfriends their total.
One of the two new boyfriends—doesn’t matter which one—starts laughing. Good-naturedly. Authentically. Loudly.
“What’s so funny?” you inquire.
“Oh, I’m just impressed you did that in your head. I am soooooooo not a math person.”
“Why’s that?” you ask.
“I tried to learn math in school but I never could. Honestly I just never saw the point. I was always jealous of people like you, though. Natural math people. God gave you all a gift He absolutely did NOT give me. And between calculators and google and having friends who are math people, it’s never really mattered.”
Of these scenarios—a new acquaintance declaring himself “not a reading person” and “not a math person”—one of these scenarios seems deranged, and you’d surely pester your friend about their new boyfriend in private.
The other one is entirely normal.
But it shouldn’t be.
Excuses vs Explanations
I am fully aware of how terribly American mathematical education is going. America may be the developed country where it is far and away the easiest to be innumerate. I’ve written about the dire state of things both in the context of Common Core mathematics and in the larger cultural attack on mathematics as a source of dependable understanding of reality. These things are real, valid, and important obstacles, and they are explanations for a great deal of the problem.
One of the hardest life lessons for me to learn has been this: the absolute necessity, responsibility, and moral imperative to differentiate between excuses and explanations.
Lots of things have explanations that are very, very easy to turn into excuses. The temptation is always there, and depending on the explanation, in many cases social support is also there. There are many things that are reasonable explanations that our culture allows, incentivizes, encourages, and supports turning into excuses.
When it comes to the topic of this essay—otherwise intelligent people giving up on learning enough mathematics to be an adult whose critical thinking skills are fully activated—there are myriad common explanations that Americans tend to turn into excuses.
And yes, the logic and discipline imposed by mathematics makes a person better at critical thinking. It does this in exactly the same way that building a house out of brick makes it stronger than wood. That’s. Why. Math Matters. Not because you’re ever going to buy 48 watermelons and 36 bags of oranges and need to know what the oranges cost with the only other information you have being the total amount spent was $240 and that the watermelons were priced at exactly half the cost of one bag of oranges.
Because eventually—inevitably—life gets very complicated, and confusing, and scary, even more so than it is in high school, when most people buy the “math person” bullshit. Real decisions, with real consequences, require adults to take real risks, and having learned the logic and discipline of mathematics is a crucial weapon in an adult’s thinking arsenal. Understanding that there are right and wrong answers, there are better and worse ways to find those answers, and that while many things can never be known with certainty, some things absolutely can—this is why math matters. This is why the struggle is worth it.
Yes, it’s hard. There are terrible teachers. Schools that skimp on the fundamentals. Common Core, which is so scattershot and illogical in its presentation that students don’t get to make deep connections by following one train of mathematical thought as far as they can. The unfortunate coincidence that the American school system moves so slowly that more complicated math tends to be introduced in middle school, around puberty—the time when cognitive and emotional resources for academics may be at their lowest. These are all factors, along with the snowball effect when parents who gave up on math are unable to help their kids with math homework or bond over math learning, leaving kids feeling alone. This happens in sharp contrast to, for example, parents who loved reading To Kill A Mockingbird and can discuss it with their kids when their kids read it.
More than anything, the majority of Americans give up on numeracy for the simple fact that math is hard. It’s challenging. It takes real effort, and work, and persistence, and struggle.
All of these things are valid explanations for why so many Americans are innumerate.
But we have, culturally and collectively, allowed them to become excuses.
We let adults off the hook for not being able to do even basic arithmetic.
We excuse adults for the zombified look of stupefaction too many of them get over something as simple as splitting a dinner check.
When grown-ass adults proudly declare their total ignorance of mathematics, we laugh good-naturedly, instead of giving them the look of horror mixed with pity that such a statement deserves.
Math Is A Skill Set
Math is, at core, simply logic and pattern recognition, applied to help us describe and understand reality. Those are skills, and skills can be learned. Skills are not gifts of the gods that are dropped in people’s laps. Talent—the state where some skills may be easier for a person to pick up than some other skills—may be a gift of the gods, but that’s in no way an implication that those skills aren’t learnable for everyone. Because they are.
We Americans, in particular, tend to think that skills are inborn and even fixed, and this is bullshit.
I used to lament that I couldn’t draw. I felt jealous of people who had “artistic talent” and had been “gifted” with art. One day I got sick of feeling that way, so I went to the library and YouTube and started learning to draw. My first attempts were laughable. Most fourth graders could do better. But I kept learning and practicing, and over time, developed the skill.
Will the Metropolitan Museum of Art ever host an exhibit of my drawings? No. But I got pretty good by treating art as a learnable, achievable skill that I could attain if I tried. Good enough to draw people and have it look like them.
Skills are learnable. They take time—more time for some people than others, yes, but time is required from everyone—and patience, and persistence.
But skills are learnable. And that’s what math is—a set of skills.
Math Is Hard For Everyone
I’m going to let you in on a secret. There is no such thing as a “math person” in the way we use the term, someone for whom math is easy, practically effortless. If someone has always found math “easy,” it’s because they stopped too soon. They stopped before they got to the most interesting branches of math, the parts that really unlock some of the mysteries of the universe. Why would someone do that?
Most (no, not all) people who are “good at math” take pride in that fact and regard it as being synonymous with intelligence. Saying that so-and-so is “good at math” is a socially-approved way of saying they’re smart.
Nearly everyone has internalized this, which is partly why we, as a culture, accept boasting that a person sucks at math with good grace. We’ve trained ourselves to think of such a statement as an expression of humility and thus virtue, rather than what it really is: a proud embrace of ignorance.
Math is hard for everyone. That kid you went to school with who got A’s in Algebra without trying, or appearing to try? If they kept going with math, it eventually got hard for them, too. They probably didn’t get trigonometric substitution integration on the first try.
Math is hard for math professors. I ran a daily math challenge for two years and had a couple of PhDs on call for tough problems. There were a few where they struggled and even had to consult colleagues. Yes, people with PhDs in mathematics, trying to solve a problem from a calendar, had to go to colleagues and say “I’m stuck, can you help?” None of them regarded this as a sign that they weren’t “a math person,” the way that many people who tried some of the calendar problems and found them challenging did. Why not? They understood that math is a skill and the problem they were struggling with was one where they needed to upgrade their skills, that’s all.
In college, I had professors who had published math textbooks, and math was hard for them. It was common to go to office hours and find them working with a fellow professor, student, or group of students on a tough problem, often for hours.
I have a degree in mathematics. As a data scientist, I work with mathematics every day, building multivariate linear regression models and doing predictive analysis. I use mathematics to do things like projecting what a company’s customer satisfaction ratings would look like if they moved top performers from this department to that one, or kept them in the same department but had them work that schedule instead of their current one. I tutor mathematics, mostly precalculus but calculus and AP statistics, too. I’m good at my job and I’m a really good tutor.
And math is hard for me. Very hard, in fact. I practice a lot. I regularly go back to Khan Academy and practice, and the most consulted books in my apartment are the math titles from the “For Dummies” series.
Majoring in mathematics was the most significant intellectual challenge of my life. I had no trouble getting A’s in other classes without trying very hard, or sometimes trying at all. That isn’t a humble brag—it’s a comment on the state of education these days. A’s shouldn’t have been easy, but they were. They were easy because it was obvious what Diversity Issues professors wanted to hear, and for my other courses, just being able to write fluently was often more than enough to get an A. Most of those professors were delighted to get a lucid, error-free paper that evidenced having read the assigned material (in other words, the bare minimum) and happily gave me an A. The effort required was minimal, often turning in a rough draft when I didn’t have time to go back and polish.
Whereas I studied ten to fourteen hours a day, nearly every day, to get earn-a-degree-in-it levels of “good at math”, and rarely did better than a B. This dichotomy was partially (perhaps mostly) rampant grade inflation, but it was also a function of the difference between mathematics and other disciplines. Argue passionately enough, and well enough, and you may convince everyone that your take on any piece of art, literature, sociology, etc., is right.
But math is math, reality is reality, the trigonometric identities are what they are, and even when they pretend otherwise to “own the cons,” everyone knows that 2 + 2 = 4 and not 5.
How To Fix This Going Forward
If you want to become numerate, my math series (of which this post is number 5) will help. It will show you how to think about math in ways that make it less scary and more accessible, and will eventually link to resources for people who want to study on their own. Right now I’m still talking basic arithmetic and none of it is paywalled. (It may be paywalled in the future, but you can email me for free access if cost is an issue for you.)
If you don’t care enough to become numerate? Believe it or not, I understand.
To take on the responsibility of becoming numerate is not easy, which is why most people give up on it. There are both individual and structural obstacles in the way for many people, and it’s exceedingly easy to turn these explanations into excuses.
If you feel this way with regard to mathematics and you—well, I understand. Truly, I do. I have my own areas of life (too many) where I’m clinging to excuses. I hope I won’t always—I hope I’ll continue to grow up and eventually shed the excuses in those areas—but for now, that’s where I am.
I may not be willing to put in the work in every area that I should, but I am able to admit that, to myself and to others. I can see that they’re excuses, and own it.
If that’s you, I ask two things.
One, own it. Admit that you are innumerate because you’re using excuses to allow yourself to remain so.
Two, don’t let your children follow in your footsteps. Don’t let them think that mathematical ability is a gift from the math fairy. Make sure they understand that mathematics is a skill, and that skills are learned. If your kids start in with the “not a math person” crap, respond the same way you would if they said they’re “not a driving person,” “not a cooking person,” “not a read-contracts-before-I-sign-them person,” or announced any other belief that an important responsibility of adult life was something they just aren’t interested in taking on.
It’s ok to admit that math is hard. Of course it is.
For people who put in the effort to understand it, that makes the satisfaction all the more sweet.
About My Substack: I’m a data scientist who would rather be a math teacher but, being unwilling to brainwash kids into Woke nonsense, am presently unqualified to teach in the US. So I bring my “math is fun and anyone can learn it” approach to mathematics here to Substack in my series, “How to Not Suck at Math,” (first five entries not paywalled, links at the top of part 5, here). Paid subscribers also have access to a creative writing series in which I post a variety of things, including fiction, descriptions, and other “writing experiments,” along with personal stories that don’t relate to Larger Points I Want To Make About The World.
My other posts are mostly cultural takes from a broadly anti-Woke perspective—yes, I’m one of those annoying classical liberals who would’ve been considered on the left until ten seconds ago. Lately I’ve regained a childhood love of reading and started publishing book reviews, including of the Wokest novel I’ve ever read and a memoir by Rob Henderson. My most widely useful essay may be this one, about how to resist the demon of self-termination.
Holly’s Substack is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.