Is it true that some people just aren’t math people? originally appeared on Quora: the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.
It really is staggering and maddening that that phrase is so ubiquitous. Now I’ll admit that it’s understandable why people have kind of clicked with that phrase and that idea, but let me explain why and in doing so why that term “not a math person” is so misplaced and defeating.
How “not a math person” gets started
More than any other subject, math is full of logical sequencing of skills. New math skills are nearly always built atop existing math skills. In order to add and subtract mixed numbers, for example, you need to know how to add/subtract fractions, which requires you to know how to find common denominators, which requires you to know how to see composite numbers as products of their factors and/or identify common multiples, and so on. Math ability is built like a tower, and a few key skills that just aren’t solid can leave a student with more of a Jenga tower.
So what will happen is that a student will hit a few skills that either don’t quite click or get lost a bit over a long vacation or just somehow aren’t ready to be built upon when the time comes. And often kids are pretty good at papering over those holes for a chapter or two: they’ll thrive on partial credit and participation, they’ll memorize but not understand a process to get through a test, they may glance at a classmate’s paper. And so the shaky skill that will become a really flimsy foundation doesn’t manifest as a giant hole just yet, or it does but it gets written off as a bad day or something like that.
And so if that skill isn’t addressed when it’s still fresh and acute, it may be a few concepts later that a student realizes she just doesn’t get it and, even worse, doesn’t quite know which questions to ask to get back on track or which step is the confusing one: it just feels like “math finally got too hard.”
And because math is by nature cumulative, an entire math class may start to feel really overwhelming as opposed to another field of study where new chapters or units are “fresh starts” and a student can start to feel confident again.
How to become a “math person” again
So generally speaking, people don’t become “not math people” or even reach a point where some kind of innate math ability is maxed out. When that sentiment hits, it generally just means that they’ve hit a point where some prerequisite knowledge from earlier just isn’t available for easy recall/use. And if we can diagnose which concepts need a thorough review or relearning, we can shore up that foundation and build toward math confidence again.
The next key is in making sure that they don’t just memorize a rule or follow the steps to blindly implement a process, but that they deeply understand why that rule holds or why that process works. My favorite breakthroughs as a tutor always came in helping students basically prove to themselves why a rule not only worked but applied in that situation, so that they had mental “breadcrumbs” to follow back if they ever got stuck again. It’s just so easy as a student — juggling multiple subjects and a social life and absences and distractions — to not deeply understand a concept when it comes up in school. But particularly if it didn’t click, or was easy to forget, and has become an impediment to future success, that’s a key place to spend the extra time to really understand not just the what and the how but the why behind it.
So the keys to re-becoming a math person are:
1) Diagnose which underlying skills are making the current skills seem unapproachable
2) Deeply understand those underlying skills and start working back upward in the application of them
And 3) Run these interventions early or frequently enough that that diagnosis and extra attention have a real chance of success and student buy-in.