The Myth of the Math Gene
“I’ve never been good at reading.”
“I can’t help my kids at all with their reading homework. Reading was always my worst subject.”
“Anything after middle school English, forget it – I’m terrible.”
Have you ever heard a parent utter these statements? Of course not, because to make a statement such as, “I’m not that good at reading,” is socially unacceptable among the averagely educated, involved parents of school aged children in our society. Which begs the question of, why then, is it socially acceptable to make such statements about math? Parents will, almost proudly, say things to me like “I was terrible at math so I’m not surprised that little David is having so much trouble with math.” Further, not only is it acceptable to make such a statement, it is practically a badge of honor for some parents when making such a claim.
Would this same parent, proudly, say the same thing to little David’s English or reading teacher, or so proudly wear their ignorance of Reading like a badge of honor? Of course not because it is not socially acceptable to “not be good at” reading. Why is this the case? I’m not exactly sure but what I do know is that parents with school-aged children, who were not raised and socialized in our American culture, do not make such claims. Parents who were socialized in Asian, Indian, Caribbean or African cultures just to name a few do not make such claims about themselves or their children’s lack of mathematics ability or aptitude. This type of thinking in my experience is a uniquely American phenomenon. And the implication being in all of this is the assumption that a person is either inherently good at math, or not. Either a person has the illusive “math gene” or not.
So by extension does this mean there is a reading gene as well? Why wouldn’t there be? If there is a math gene, then there must be a reading gene as well. Perhaps there is, but if this reading gene does, in fact, exist parents do not invoke or acknowledge its existence as readily and as proudly as the reason why little David may not be a good reader. Not being a good reader is unacceptable in our current educational system and in our society. Reading is now infused “across the curriculum” as any American teacher knows. Schools have implemented strategies such as nightly homework reading requirements and the popular 100 book reading challenge as ways to help students improve reading. When it comes to reading actual practice is the norm as to addressing reading issues not the invocation of genetics.
As a high school math teacher, I have become very weary of hearing the myriad of excuses that parents and students alike make to explain poor math performance. As with reading, there are two main things that we as a society and we as a collective American educational system need to adopt in order to address the math deficiencies of our students. First, we need to change our mindset about one’s ability to learn mathematics. Just as we believe with reading, with math one becomes proficient through practice, time on task, the expectation of success and the belief that learning math is within everyone’s grasp.
The math gene theory needs to be retired as our national scapegoat regarding our children’s performance in math. We need to stop giving our kids permission to give up on a topic that can be learned and mastered with practice, perseverance and the proper “can do” mindset. Let’s support our kids with a positive attitude towards math and encourage them to succeed in mathematics instead of making up excuses and being tacitly complicit in their failure.
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