Are you bad at math? If you answered yes, consider these next two questions: Are you bad at math because you didn't study hard enough to learn the material? Or, are you bad at math because you lack the ability to be good at it?
How people answer that question determines a lot about their education and outlook on life, according to multiple studies.
As it turns out, some people believe that intelligence is fixed, or unchangeable. Others believe that hard work and discipline can improve intelligence. The children who believe that they don't do well on math tests because they're intellectually incapable of understanding the material have no reason to try harder or spend more time studying, thus trapping them in a self-fulfilling prophecy of being bad at math. The students who believe they can do better if they study know that their mathematical skills (or any skills for that matter) can be enhanced if they put in the effort.
In short, members of the first group are failing before they start. And for some reason, more than with other subjects, people feel that they're just plain bad at math.
One study that looked at this issue found that, "women who believed their math skills were fixed and unchangeable showed less math identification and less interest in math tasks than women who believed their math skills were malleable. These results suggest that women with fixed-trait beliefs are more likely to fall prey to the gender gap that exists in mathematics fields."
Miles Kimball and Noah Smith, two educators who wrote about this phenomenon for The Atlantic, argue that this is a giantic problem, using evidence found in studies as well as their own experience in the classroom. The end result isn't just bad grades. It's giving up on learning a valuable life skill. Kimball and Smith write, "Math is the great mental bogeyman of an unconfident America. If we can convince you that anyone can learn math, it should be a short step to convincing you that you can learn just about anything, if you work hard enough."
The authors cite the work of psychologists Lisa Blackwell, Kali Trzesniewski and Carol Dweck who took on the task of convincing a group of low-income minority students that if they worked hard they could become smarter. The truly remarkable part of that study was not that the kids improved and earned higher grades (which they did); it was that Dweck noted that a few of the tough boys in the group were brought to tears, learning that the level of intelligence they could reach was limitless — it was entirely up to them. If they worked harder, they would become smarter.
Of course, not all of us will become genius mathematicians, but neither do we have to avoid disciplines that require that specific skill set. The majority of us can become proficient and maybe even excel at math. As Mashable points out, while dyscalculia, a math disability, is a real thing, only 6 percent of the population is likely to have it. For the rest of us, it's a confidence issue, or a lack of belief that even with rigorous study, we'll improve. Thankfully, we now know better, and we can pass on that information to the next generation.
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