Study Shows That Kids Don’t Have To Like Math To Be Good At It

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Does torturing children with mathematics create good mathematicians? Image: Flickr/Chris
Does torturing children with mathematics create good mathematicians? Image: Flickr/Chris

You want your child to want to do math. In part, that’s because you want your child to experience the esoteric pleasure of a difficult task done well. In part, it’s so that you don’t have to come off like an adult character in a Roald Dahl novel as you nag and harangue and cajole your child into doing math homework. And, also, doesn’t it seem like your child will do a better job if he or she is the one choosing to do it?

There’s some scientific truthiness in that final one; studies have shown that intrinsic motivation is the best path to creativity–if you want your child to be a creative musician, you shouldn’t bribe him or her to practice. Other studies have shown that people (including people who happen to be children) who are intrinsically motivated are also more likely to set goals and work to achieve them.

So along with death and taxes, one of life’s certainties is that intrinsic motivation (and not bribery with chocolate or screen time or cash-ola) creates achievement. If you want your child to be good at math, your child has to want to do math. Or does she?

Even asking the question is audacious. Of course kids who want to do math are better at math! So it seems almost silly to invest the resources of top education researchers to prove something we already know–but, nonetheless, that’s what a team from Quebec did, resulting in a study of 1,478 Canadian kids on early view at the journal Child Development (the study, not the kids).

The data comes from something called the Quebec Longitudinal Study of Child Development, which measured a whole bunch of family, personality, education and achievement stuff from age 5 months to 15 years. Mining this data, the researchers used answers from the Elementary School Motivation Scale to measure kids’ intrinsic motivation for mathematics (questions like “I like mathematics” and “mathematics interests me a lot”). Then they compared intrinsic motivation to kids’ scores on math assessments in grades 1, 2, and 4.

Surprise, surprise: kids who were intrinsically motivated were better at math. But the important part was that motivation was the lagging indicator–being good at math led to liking math, but liking math did not lead to being good at math. (The classic example of this “lagging indicator” thing is stoplights: a yellow light shows that a green light has happened; in this case, liking math showed that being good at math had already happened.)

Again, “achievement in mathematics was found to systematically predict later intrinsic motivation in mathematics over time. However, there was no evidence for the reverse; intrinsic motivation for mathematics did not predict later (or changes in) achievement in mathematics,” the authors write.

The authors offer a couple possible explanations for this mind-bogglingly counterintuitive finding. Maybe elementary school is so tightly regimented that everyone is forced into the same work whether or not they like the subject matter and so there’s no gain for kids intrinsically drawn to math or loss for kids who would rather skip it? Maybe the assessments rewarded “quantity” of math skills over “quality” of math skills, meaning that intrinsic motivation still might help kids outperform their bribed or bullied classmates on trickier problems?

But if you want to take the study at face value and draw far-reaching conclusions from a single data set, it’s pretty obvious that self-determinism in mathematics education is a steaming pile of hippie codswallop. That’s said with tongue firmly in cheek–and my family is definitely among the hippie codswallopers who believe that a child should study things he or she is drawn to. But maybe these results can lead to a larger conversation? Here’s a statement straight from the researchers’ pens: “The present findings could mean that interventions in education that try to increase intrinsic motivation may not be the best approach in the early school years.” Care to discuss?

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