Saying “I am not good at math” can be a PR disaster if you are an IRS official. What’s worse is if you are a parent or a teacher, research has shown adults math phobia can be passed down to young students.
Malcolm Gladwell, in his book “Outliers – The Story of Success“, famously attributed math competence of Chinese students to their ancestors who toiled in the rice paddies from generations to generations. Researchers believe being good at mathematics is more about attitude than ability. ”You master mathematics if you are willing to try.” Parents’ uneasiness towards math and belief that abilities determine math performance could affect their children’s willingness to try just a little harder and a little longer at math problems.
When test results of Shanghai students taking PISA tests jolted educators, especially in math, work ethics of the Chinese students were praised. They work longer hours every day and into the weekend. When someone says “I am not good at math” in front of their children, most of the times this type of comment passes off as “it is ok to be bad at math“. Other times it comes off as a badge of honor, because they imply “if I am bad at math I must be good at something else more creative, right? Be it art or literature”.
Adults can simply avoid languages like “I’ve never been good at math” (even if you really sucked at math). We can also learn along side with our children. There are a lot of great online resources out there such as short videos on specific math concepts on Khan Academy organized by grade levels. If you are more committed, you can find full length college level math courses on Coursera.
Educators can also learn from Richard Njus, Principal at Deerfield Elementary, a school my children used to attend. I remember Mr. Njus likes to end his weekly newsletter, known as “Njus Letter”, with the phrase “Always learning“.