Stop saying you are “bad at math.” Just stop. I don’t understand how otherwise well-educated people can be so comfortable casually proclaiming their lack of knowledge of a basic subject. In America saying “I’m bad at math” is a common joke. It’s almost a humblebrag. How did we let ignorance become funny?
Imagine this interaction occurring sincerely between two intelligent people:
“Don’t ask me anything about books. I’m SOOOOOO bad at reading. Seriously, I’m functionally illiterate!”
“Me too! I suck at reading! Reading’s the worst!”
That conversation wouldn’t happen. At least not so glibly. American culture considers illiteracy to be shameful. We prioritize learning to read and teaching our children to read, but at some point our society decided that ignorance of math is acceptable. Perhaps even cool.
Years ago a talking Barbie doll was pulled from the market because of outrage that one of its recorded phrases was, “Math is hard.” People were concerned about the message those words would send to little girls, but I don’t see that outrage when real life people say the same thing.
So many initiatives exist trying to get more girls interested in STEM fields. But science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (particularly mathematics) rely on math. If a girl is struggling in a math course and believes she is struggling because she might just be “bad at math” (like her mom or aunt or whoever) she is likely to stop trying. That girl will avoid fields of study that require a lot of math because she thinks she is bad at it. The truth, however, is that she is struggling because she’s in a challenging course and she is trying to do something she’s never done before.
She’s not bad at math. She just hasn’t learned it yet.
This is why I get angry when people, particularly women, say they are “bad at math.” So many women who I otherwise admire–smart, well-educated women–make these “math is hard” jokes or share Pinterest pins with that message. Those jokes and pins offend me. Deeply offend me. I don’t care whether you can do math or not, but do not help spread the message that math is insurmountable for some people.
Because it’s not true.
A recent article in The Atlantic breaks down the myth of “I’m bad at math.” The article concedes that there are higher levels of math that are mastered only by geniuses with special inborn talent, but most of us will never encounter those types of math.
For high-school math, inborn talent is much less important than hard work, preparation, and self-confidence.
The article demonstrates that people who are good at math tend to be the people who study more, and a belief that one can be “bad at math” can become a self-fulfilling prophesy.
Kids who believe they are “bad at math” are going to be bad at math.
Do our future a favor. Instead of saying “I’m bad at math” tell the truth:
“I didn’t like math, so I quit trying to learn it.”
If you are talking directly to a kid consider adding, “but I bet if you try you could be good at it.”
Growing up I wasn’t taught that “math is hard.” I was taught that I could do anything I set my mind to. That’s something I wish all children learned.
That, and math.
RELATED POST: A STEM girl’s confession: I was bad at math too
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