“I’m just not a math person.”

“I’m just not a math person.”

As teachers, we’ve all heard it a million times. But the dying gasps of a would-be “A” student are a lie––because, as Quartz authors Miles Kimball and Noah Smith explain in this article, math perseverance is all too often mistaken for math “ability.”

Kimball and Smith are not only responding to the sighs of millions of high school students around the globe; they’re also writing against journalists like Nicholson Baker, who wrote “The Case Against Algebra II” for Harper’s last month. Nicholson argues that since mathematical concepts come difficultly to some students, and since only a fraction of the careers intended by high schoolers actually require mathematical reasoning at an Algebra II level or higher, then we should make the course optional, not mandatory.

Here’s the point where I’m supposed to weigh in on the debate, right? Well, it’s not that simple. I agree and disagree with Kimball and Smith. Here’s why:

  • Yes, there is a self-defeating attitude that permeates math classrooms––and science classrooms, and Spanish classrooms, and so forth. It is true that kids quit trying far sooner than they should. And I believe that with the requisite amount of time, effort, and support, anyone can learn anything. Period.
  • But I also strongly believe in the diversity of cognitive processing styles. Thus, while everyone may actually be capable of learning math, they may not be capable of performing well in the educational climate created by top-down, assessment-based, highly verbal instruction. And continuing to fail at something not because you can’t do it but because the classroom deck is stacked against you is one of the most frustrating things a child can experience.

So what’s the solution? Variegated instructional methods, attentive teachers, and gigawatts of patience. If these solutions don’t seem to be on the horizon in your school district, you should consider supplementary, individualized instruction. This is precisely why I started North Avenue Education: to aid in the cultivation of creative and sophisticated thinking. For some kids, their ONLY chance at such an experience is with a tutor. But when it does happen, it’s a gorgeous event.

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