January 06, 2014

The Good News/Bad News: There’s No Math Gene

Have you or your child ever said, “I’m just no good at math?” If so, then new research from Norway delivers news that’s both good and bad:
  • There’s no such thing as being naturally good at math.
  • Practicing math makes one better at math. 

Many of us have believed that math ability is something a person is born with – or not. So it might be hard to believe that this isn’t so. Here is how researchers came to the conclusion that mathematicians aren’t born that way.

Scientists asked 70 Norwegian fifth-graders to complete nine different math tasks. Each task required knowledge of different mathematical operations and different applications of mathematical thinking. If math ability were inborn, individual children would have been equally good (or equally bad) on all nine tasks. But they weren’t. Children were better at tasks they had practiced in school and less successful in other tasks. No one appeared to be “naturally good” at math or “naturally bad.”

This is bad news for those of us who have used the excuse that we’re just not good at math as a reason for not trying very hard. But it’s good news for those of us who would like to do better at math than we are doing right now. Practice does make perfect.

So here are some math tips for parents.
  1. Start your child early in thinking mathematically. People who seem “naturally good” at math are people who were surrounded by numbers and opportunities for problem-solving from a young age. Play with math ideas as they come up naturally during play.
  2. Start early in supporting your child in mastering math tasks. You might dread helping your child with math homework, but if you start in kindergarten you and your child can learn math together. Don’t imagine your child is “too young” to understand.
  3. Accept no excuses. As your child gets older, the math gets more complicated. But your child is smart. She can do this. And you are smart too. Even if you don’t understand her math homework, you can. Learn this stuff together.
  4. Don’t let others make excuses either. Your child’s other parent, his grandmother, or even his teacher might hint that he’s just not good at math. They might say he has other wonderful qualities so his lack of math skill isn’t a problem. But of course it is. Math is essential. Don’t let anyone tell you (or tell your child) that it’s okay to be bad at math.

The bad news is we are all responsible for doing the hard work of learning math. The good news is we can be successful if we try.

Help your child to try harder.

© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Parenting: A Field Guide, at your favorite bookstore.