Sunday, April 5, 2009

Bad at math? Blame your parents. (Yeah, right.)




Bad at Math? Blame It on Your Parents
And if your kids aren't good at math, blame yourself

This hogwash is brought to you courtesy of NBC - Connecticut.

I have no doubt that what the
UCLA researchers found as to faster nerve impulses resulting in faster signaling and therefore, faster processing of information is true. Clearly, some people learn things at a faster rate than others. We all have our cognitive limits.

Nevertheless, these limits can be challenged. Intelligence is malleable. (See Daniel Willingham,
Why Don't Students Like School? )

We already have a problem in our country with accepting this view as part of our culture, we don't need people going around making excuses for their lack of math ability. Our children, in particular, need us to be convincing them of quite the opposite.
"In China, Japan, and other Eastern countries, intelligence is more often viewed as malleable. If students fail a test or don't understand a concept, it's not they're stupid-- they just haven't worked hard enough yet. This atrribution is helpful to students because it tells them that intelligence is under their control. If they are performing poorly, they can do something about it." -Willingham, p. 131

Math ability is the result of deliberate practice, the kind of practice that makes perfect. Doing well in math requires effort and sometimes it's not particurlarly fun. As Willingham so clearly points out, sometimes we do our best to avoid thinking altogether. That's precisely why effort matters. "When children believe that their efforts to learn make them smarter, they show greater persistence with math." (National Mathematics Advisory Panel) This is the message that we need to communicate to our children (and to ourselves as parents).

So am I saying the researchers at UCLA got it all wrong? Not at all. Science supports what they've discovered about genetics influencing intelligence. However, we must temper this view with caution. "Our genetic inheritance does impact our intelligence, but it seems to do so mostly through the environment. There is no doubt that intelligence can be changed," states Daniel Willingham. Clearly, a child born to parents who are good at math or who communicate a passion for math, and who encourage this trait in their own children are going to alter the outcome.

The environment isn't limited to home and to parenting either. This news story is irresponsible because it's letting educators off the hook and blaming parents and children for a lack of math ability! Clearly, well qualified teachers of mathematics armed with a coherent and cumulative curricula can increase mathematics ability in children. They do so in Singapore and Finland and many, many other countries that outperform us on internationally benchmarked assessments. Our children are no less capable. Our children are underperforming.

I'll close with what's now become my favorite math quote:

"The universe is a far more beautiful and elegant place than any of us can imagine. We must be ready and able to both construct and use mathematics to help explain ever more subtle aspects of it, and the phrase `I will never use it' should be deleted from our students' vocabularies."

James Milgram, Professor Emeritus
Stanford University

I would only add that the phrase "I'm bad at math" should be deleted from our students' vocabularies as well.

*See also: Ten Myths About Math Education and Why You Shouldn't Believe Them

If you'd like to know how you can get involved with improving Connecticut's math standards, visit

Bad at Math? Blame It on Your Parents And if your kids aren't good at math, blame yourself - NBC CT
Study gives more proof that intelligence is largely inherited- UCLA Newsroom

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