I’ve been a math teacher long enough to have lost count of the number of times someone has told me, “I’m bad at math.” Early on, I was shocked by the confessions and caught off-guard by the strength of the conviction with which these words were shared. It began with my seatmate on an airplane home shortly after I had declared my major in college, continued with my relatives and neighbors, and eventually grew to students, their parents, and anyone I ran into beyond my classroom when wearing some of my favorite mathy t-shirts. I soon moved to disbelief, expressing my own unwillingness to accept that some people could feel this way, and eventually into prosecutor mode, looking for the loopholes in their statement, ready to make a winning argument to the contrary. It has taken me an embarrassingly long time to figure out that the declaration “I’m bad at math” is not an invitation to challenge someone’s opinion or a request for absolution. It is a symptom of the crisis in math education, one that perpetuates a narrow definition of math, illuminates the math trauma and anxiety that are rampant in our classrooms, and equates being “bad” with being slow and being “good” with being fast.
It has taken me an embarrassingly long time to figure out that the declaration : “I’m bad at math” is not an invitation to challenge someone’s opinion or a request for absolution. It is a symptom of the crisis in math education.
A few years ago, I vowed to become less reactive and more proactive. I had been reading Dan Heath’s book, Upstream: The Quest to Solve Problems Before They Happen, which recounts a parable that spoke to me:
You and a friend are having a picnic by the side of a river. Suddenly you hear a shout from the direction of the water—a child is drowning. Without thinking, you both dive in, grab the child, and swim to shore. Before you can recover, you hear another child cry for help.You and your friend jump back in the river to rescue her as well. Then another struggling child drifts into sight . . . and another . . . and another. The two of you can barely keep up. Suddenly, you see your friend wading out of the water, seeming to leave you alone. “Where are you going?” you demand. Your friend answers, “I’m going upstream to tackle the guy who’s throwing all these kids in the water.”
—A public health parable (adapted from the original, which is commonly attributed to Irving Zola) (Heath, 2020)
We have a crisis in math education–children are drowning in our math classes. We can see it in every form of school accountability, hear it in the stories from our students and families, and feel it every time someone shares their story of math trauma. Gaps are getting larger, students are less engaged, and stakes are getting higher. But the biggest impact we can have on the crisis isn’t to double down on accountability, make the stakes higher, or gap gaze. We need to head upstream, to where the phrase “I’m bad at math” comes from.
This past spring, my colleague Mark Alcorn and I led a podcast book study of Lidia Gonzalez’ book Bad at Math? Dismantling Harmful Beliefs that Hinder Mathematics Education (Corwin, 2023), which helped me to rethink this phrase and where it comes from. Gonzalez dives into this idea from various angles, shedding light on the stereotypes, negative mindsets, and policies at the root of systemic inequities in math education.
Reframing What Math Is
To begin with, we probably need to address the question – just what do we mean by math? One way to tackle our math crisis is to first broaden our understanding of what math is. Sure, math is about numbers and computation, fractions and number sense, algebra, and equations. But math is also about shapes and spatial reasoning, logic and problem solving, and noticing and using patterns. So when you plan your trip around the grocery store to avoid the cookie aisle, but also don’t want to deal with a second trip by the ice cream either – you’re doing math (that’s graph theory). You’re also doing math when you figure out just how to pack the trunk of your car, your work bag, a box of school supplies, or your lunch box (spatial reasoning). And you’re doing math when you notice a pattern. From the music we hear, to arrangements of gardens, artwork, and roads–there are patterns everywhere. And math is really just the study of patterns. When someone says, “I’m bad at math,” we can help dispel the belief by finding the parts of math they don’t feel “bad at.”
When someone says, “I’m bad at math,” we can help dispel the belief by finding the parts of math they don’t feel “bad at”.
Reducing Math Trauma and Pressure
You may have had experiences in school that made you feel you were bad at math, experiences that may even still cause you to sweat when you have to calculate something in your head, or panic at the sight of fractions. Math trauma is, unfortunately, a real thing. Many people who have had negative experiences with math know that math triggers a physical and emotional response. So how do we stop the cycle of math trauma and avoid perpetuating this in others?
First, we can work to have a positive math attitude. This may mean finding another way to empathize with someone we hear this from. While the sentiments may have truth to them, how might the way we talk about math perpetuate negative associations with math in our students or others around us and how can we reframe these sentiments? Rather than saying “I hated math, too” or “I was never good at math, either,” we might say “I used to think I was bad at math, and then I learned math is more than how fast I can answer questions” or “Now I realize there is more to math than I thought when I as in school.” We can also engage in aspects of math that feel fun and playful, such as puzzling and problem solving. In his TedTalk, game creator Dan Finkel says, “What books are to reading, play is to math.” We can build a love for math through play. If you’re looking for inspiration, there are mathy games for all ages that might just help you start to associate math with joy. Some of my favorite physical games include Tiny Polka Dot, Chutes and Ladders, Rolly Poly, King Domino, Mancala, Balance Beans, Multi, Prime Climb, Izzi, Quarto, Blokus. Some of my favorite digital games include Factris, Vertex, Mastermind by Geogebra, Shape Puzzles, Melody Maker, Digits.
Second, avoid the rush in math. Slow down and work to disassociate math with speed. Some of the most well-known and respected mathematicians will tell you they are not fast at math. Being good at math doesn’t mean you need to be fast, so take away the timers, races, and speed if it doesn’t feel good to you or your students.
Being good at math doesn’t mean you need to be fast, so take away the timers, races, and speed if it doesn’t feel good to you or your students.
Find ways to highlight taking time and persevering in solving problems– these habits are important for us and our students, both in math and beyond.
We can “rewrite the story of what mathematics is, what it means to be good at it, and who can excel at it” (Gonzales, 2023) by heading upstream and dealing with where the idea “I’m bad at math” comes from.
To learn more about ways we can dismantle harmful beliefs that hinder math education – check out Lidia Gonzalez’ book.