Math isn’t just for ‘math people’

I’m just not a math person” is “the most self-destructive idea in America today,” write Miles Kimball and Noah Smith in The Atlantic. You’re not just limiting your own future. “You may be helping to perpetuate a pernicious myth that is harming underprivileged children—the myth of inborn genetic math ability.”

Mathematicians need high math ability, write Kimball and Smith, economics professors who’ve taught math. But few of us are aiming that high. “For high-school math, inborn talent is much less important than hard work, preparation, and self-confidence.”

Belief in inborn math ability may be responsible for much of the math gender gap, according to Oklahoma City researchers, they write.

Psychologist Carol Dweck and colleagues found students do much better if they believe “you can always greatly change how intelligent you are” than if they think “you have a certain amount of intelligence, and you really can’t do much to change it.”

In Intelligence and How to Get It, Richard Nisbett recounts what happened when Dweck and colleagues told poor minority junior high school students that intelligence is malleable and can be developed by hard work. Learning changes the brain by forming new connections and students are in charge of this change process, psychologists told the students.

Convincing students that they could make themselves smarter by hard work led them to work harder and get higher grades. The intervention had the biggest effect for students who started out believing intelligence was genetic. (A control group, who were taught how memory works, showed no such gains.

But improving grades was not the most dramatic effect, “Dweck reported that some of her tough junior high school boys were reduced to tears by the news that their intelligence was substantially under their control.”

Kimball and Smith conclude: “It is no picnic going through life believing that you were born dumb—and are doomed to stay that way.”

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