We Are ALL “Math People”

(Don’t you roll your eyes!)

As I spend most of my days thinking about math, talking about math, and designing math activities, I was curious to find out about how people identify (or don’t identify) as mathematicians. What does it mean to be a “math person” and who qualifies? What does it mean to be “good at math?”

I asked this question to friends, co-workers, family, students, people on the street, and anyone else who would answer.  The answers (even my own!) totally surprised me. 

Here were the main takeaways: 

  1. People believe everyday math skills are not real or impressive enough to allow them to have the label of “math person”
  2. People believed they were good at math until someone or something told them otherwise
  3. It is easy for people to forget how much math they knew (and still know!) when they have been conditioned to focus on how much math they don’t know. 

Working at Math ANEX, a company that focuses on identifying students’ mathematical strengths (and generally celebrates mathematics), really impacted the way I thought about this exploration. I couldn’t help but think about what a profound difference it would have made for all the folks I spoke with if this narrative of what it means to be “good at math” had been reframed and revisited with a more healthy perspective. 

Let’s dive a little deeper into each of these beliefs. 

Observation 1: People think everyday math skills are not enough to make you a “math person”

Most of the self-identified “non math” people I talked to tended to dismiss their own math skills in favor of some esoteric, complicated math skill they didn’t possess that sounded more impressive and more “mathy”.  Interestingly, the “real” math people sited to discount themselves was often from outdated high school curriculum and it now mostly useless and obsolete (but I will save my thoughts on that for another blog post!)   

My mom dismissed her years of budgeting as “not real math.” Our web developer said problem solving for the website didn’t count. The guy making my coffee said he was just organized (as he measured and poured out the ingredients for multiple orders at once – an impressive mathematical feat!)

It seemed like these folks believed that “real math people” work in isolation with a giant whiteboard (and no technology) where they do calculus by hand for fun, are never wrong, and can add “big numbers” together in their heads. Of course, no one actually knew a real person who did these things and thank goodness because that doesn’t sound like a good time to me. 

When I countered that there are many different types of math, I was met with patient nods by the adults and eye rolls by the younger people.  No one considered planning a party or dinner get together (a situation that requires estimating serving sizes, timing, and budget as well as continually modifying for constraints) as math. Nobody acknowledged the powerful geometric considerations that go into packing groceries into a grocery bag or box. And knowing when to charge your phone? The amount of scathing incredulity I got from teenagers when I brought up how much math goes into this one was enough for me to stop using it as an example.     

However, it is not their fault that they think this way! Traditionally, “being good at math” DID mean doing fast and accurate calculations. Computation was what math class was all about and the only things assessments traditionally measured was whether or not you could do the math and get the questions right. (Cut to the one minute multiplication speed sheets I did all of second grade.) This narrow definition of mathematical “proficiency” leads directly to my second observation. 

Observation 2: People believed they were good at math until someone or something told them otherwise

My librarian said she thought she was a math person until a particular class in middle school made her think she wasn’t. This was a common narrative. Over and over, a grade on a math test (often years or decades ago) was the reason people choose not to identify as math people today.

This got me thinking about my own experience. Before this project, I didn’t doubt my math identity at all. I have always loved math and math loves me. But hearing these stories over and over, I was transported back to my tenth grade geometry class with my failing test grade staring up at me from my desk. I remember the feeling of deep shame and the thought, “But I am supposed to be good at math!” swirling around in my head as I shoved my test to the bottom of my backpack.  

I have done many more years of math since that day and I have even taught geometry but there is some part of me that will always feel like I am an imposter when it comes to circles and tangents. I couldn’t help but notice that no matter how much I tried to highlight that we are all mathematicians, those bad math experiences tended to overpower (in our collective memories) the innumerable problems and concepts that we HAVE learned and mastered throughout our lives.

What power test scores have over us!  There has to be a better way. Guess what, there is. 🙂 

Observation 3: It is easy to forget how much you know when you are only told what you don’t know.

“I know algebra but I don’t feel confident doing calculus.” “I know spreadsheets but I don’t know physics.” “I can do math but only with a calculator.” The focus on the deficits, on what we are missing in our math identities, seem to have defined people’s entire relationship with math. 

Could you imagine how many more “math people” we would have out there if the way students and teachers interacted with math test results was based on celebrating what students knew as opposed to identifying what they lacked?

This idea of creating mathematical experiences that provide insights about student assets is the driving force behind the way we, at Math ANEX, have started to re-imagine assessments and reporting around mathematical understanding. No student should feel that their relationship with math is fixed, narrow, and pre-defined. As a part of the assessment writing team, I also try to design questions with unique contexts and real world applications to broaden the ideas of what is “math” and hopefully help people realize the countless ways they ARE math people. My hope is that this next generation of learners have a more positive, open, and versatile relationship with math. Math is a ubiquitous, foundational, and awe inspiring part of our lives every day, and all of us have mathematical strengths and skills that we use confidently, consistently, and correctly even if we often don’t like to give ourselves credit for them being “mathy” enough.   

Now it’s your turn!

What do you think? Are you a math person? (The answer is YOU ARE but I would love to hear more). Feel free to leave your thoughts on the Twitter post.