The Science of Becoming a Math Person

Flickr/Andrea Allen cc license

The other day I was sitting on a bench in Boulder, Colorado’s Pearl Street Mall and I overheard a young, hipsterish guy laughing about the fact that he kept messing up those subtraction Captchas — you know, the little puzzles that prove your humanity by asking things like 4 – __ = 2. I’ve blown my fair share of math problems. But what caught my ear wasn’t that he struggled with Captchas, it was the fact that he excused it, saying, “Hey, I’m not a numbers person…” Because he wasn’t a numbers person, it was okay to be bad at math. More than that, it was okay to not try to be good at math.

That terrifies me. What if my kids decide they’re not “numbers people”. Should I start force-feeding them abaci (at $20 apiece!)? It was in this desperate frame of mind that I came across a recent article in the journal Child Development describing the path to what the researchers call the development of “mathematics identity”.

Think about it: what creates the self-concept that one is or isn’t a math person? The obvious answer is that it must depend on whether you believe you’re good at math and are, in fact, good at math.

To test this assumption the researchers from Harvard, Florida International University and Western Kentucky University explored data from 9,000 college calculus students, comparing background, experiences and career goals to performance in their math classes.  As you might remember, a basic calc class is prerequisite in many majors, making it a perfect place to look for differences between “math people” and “not math people.” Most importantly, the researchers asked what ingredients mixed together in what combination were the markers of people who had a strong mathematics identity?

This gets a little nuanced, but overall it wasn’t a student’s math competence or even some sort of warranted or unwarranted confidence in their math skills that made students think they were “math people.” Instead, it was others’ recognition of their skills and their own interest in math. Sure, being good at math led to some of this external recognition and internal interest, but what really mattered was how much students liked it and how they perceived others’ opinions of their math ability.

The researchers put it this way: “Performance/competence self-perceptions are not suf?cient to developing a mathematics identity — recognition and interest are paramount.”

They also write that, “This ?nding is important to consider because students’ perceptions then have the potential to in?uence their behavior and choices, such as the choice to take advanced mathematics courses or pursue a mathematics-related career, and thus may become self-ful?lling.”

Accepting the identity of a math person can help to make you a math person. But just being good at math isn’t enough. To become a math person or to help your children become math people and thus avoid buying abaci in bulk, you’ll have to find or foster interest and recognition; math identity is about choosing to engage in math and having this engagement recognized.


Get the GeekDad Books!


Dad of two, husband of one, science writer, sometimes mathematician, TED-Ed speaker, loser of hotties vs. nerds episode of Wipeout, author of The Geeks' Guide to World Domination. Also Real Kids, Real Stories, Real Change. (And other books). @garthsundem