Are you a Math Person?

Are you a Math Person? Are you Not a Math Person?  Those are the questions I posed in my  TEDxNCSU lecture  from 2012.  In my experience, people in the United States don’t think twice about this question and they see this as a legitimate construct.  I actually think the question itself makes no sense!  (And I am not alone, here is a really cool blog from I Speak Math about this same question). There is no such thing as a Math Person, there are only people who have had the repetitions that made enough sense to them that they kept moving forward, and those who got lost somewhere because the opportunities they were presented made no sense or turned them off to engagement. So what if your ability in math had to do with effort?

To me, performance and sense of aptitude is driven by the things we know from expert performance research,(Ericsson, 2000) which is more or less: Effective Time in = Increased Ability out.

What is odd, is that, at the same time, students in the United States actually like math better than their peers in higher performing countries.  In fact, there is a clear inverse relationship: Countries where students like math more function below average, Countries where students like math less excel at math.

Maybe math is about persistence, critique and justification, and hard work with effort.  I believe that we can perhaps make math less obviously ‘fun’ and yet more effective in the long run. If we believe that it is a certain type of fun to learn, maybe that is okay.

U.S. academic performance compared to other countries. The U.S. scores comparatively lower on PISA measures than on TIMSS measures.    PISA video  PISA 2009 Scores  TIMSS 2011 4th Grade  TIMSS 2011 8th Grade 

Note: Some argue that the scores underestimate U.S. scores.  When I read these arguments they seem to bury the real questions in number.  The real question is ‘are we performing to our potential as a country and are we using our human resources well?’  The answer to that seems to be ‘no’.  We are not leveraging our human resources well.  Here is what the argument tends to look like when arguing ‘against’ paying attention to these scores.

For instance from Carnoy and Rothstein, 2013 (Economic Policy Institute, online)

These facts are laid out in separate spots:

*Because in every country, students at the bottom of the social class distribution perform worse than students higher in that distribution, U.S. average performance appears to be relatively low partly because we have so many more test takers from the bottom of the social class distribution.  (underline added)

*In math, disadvantaged and lower-middle-class U.S. students perform about the same as comparable students in similar post-industrial countries.  (Carnoy and Rothstein, 2013)

If we disentangle economics from education then the conclusion is – We have more poor kids so we should not be held accountable for these lower scores.  If we look at the data and just compare poor kids to poor kids and wealthier kids to wealthier kids, we are doing better than reported. –   This appears to be, or at least is my interpretation of, what Carnoy and Rothstein argue.

If we DON’T disentangle economics from education and we consider that making sure kids are not in poverty is a PART of our responsibility as a society when we consider the education of our students, then those two facts are re-interpreted in a different way. Now they say – Wow, we have more poor kids and it is bringing our overall scores down.  It indicates that we are not utilizing our human resources well.  We need to reduce the amount of poor kids and this includes ensuring that more students have access to better education and thus perform better.  Maybe social issues and education can’t be disconnected if we want to improve our human capital.-  This is how I read these facts.

For more on the second way to interpret these facts, see Linda Darling-Hammond, The Flat World and Education. She seems to interpret these facts in this way as well.

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I am an Associate Teaching Professor in the Elementary Education department at NC State where I specialize in Math Methods. I went to Duke where I earned a B.A. in Anthropology and played on the Golf Team. I have an M.Ed. in Special Education and a Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction with a concentration in mathematics education, both from NC State. My interest in Math waned in middle and high school. But when I began to support high school students in math as part of my job as a special educator, I became interested in the cultural and instructional aspects of mathematics. And now, 25 years later, that's pretty much all I think about.


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