We are going to cover this in an upcoming “Question of the Day” for my courses and I have copied this article from The Atlantic. Read the full article there for a more complete discussion, excellent related articles and other works by this author.
Basic ability in the subject isn’t the product of good genes, but hard work.
“I’m just not a math person.”
We hear it all the time. And we’ve had enough. Because we believe that the idea of “math people” is the most self-destructive idea in America today. The truth is, you probably are a math person, and by thinking otherwise, you are possibly hamstringing your own career. Worse, you may be helping to perpetuate a pernicious myth that is harming underprivileged children—the myth of inborn genetic math ability.
Is math ability genetic? Sure, to some degree. Terence Tao, UCLA’s famous virtuoso mathematician, publishes dozens of papers in top journals every year, and is sought out by researchers around the world to help with the hardest parts of their theories. Essentially none of us could ever be as good at math as Terence Tao, no matter how hard we tried or how well we were taught. But here’s the thing: We don’t have to! For high-school math, inborn talent is much less important than hard work, preparation, and self-confidence.
How do we know this? First of all, both of us have taught math for many years—as professors, teaching assistants, and private tutors. Again and again, we have seen the following pattern repeat itself:
- Different kids with different levels of preparation come into a math class. Some of these kids have parents who have drilled them on math from a young age, while others never had that kind of parental input.
- On the first few tests, the well-prepared kids get perfect scores, while the unprepared kids get only what they could figure out by winging it—maybe 80 or 85%, a solid B.
- The unprepared kids, not realizing that the top scorers were well-prepared, assume that genetic ability was what determined the performance differences. Deciding that they “just aren’t math people,” they don’t try hard in future classes, and fall further behind.
- The well-prepared kids, not realizing that the B students were simply unprepared, assume that they are “math people,” and work hard in the future, cementing their advantage.
Thus, people’s belief that math ability can’t change becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I was explaining to my class the other day that given our class sizes it is better than 50-50 that two students have the same birthday.
But hard to explain.
So I give them this article.
Article below By STEVEN STROGATZ
Me, Myself and Math, a six-part series by Steven Strogatz, looks at us through the lens of math.
By an amazing coincidence my sister, Cathy, and my Aunt Vere have the same birthday: April 4.
Actually, it’s not so amazing. In any extended family with enough siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins, you’d expect at least one such birthday coincidence. Certainly, if there are 366 people in the family — more relatives than days of the year — they can’t all have different birthdays, so a match is guaranteed in a family this big. (Or if you’re worried about leap year, make it 367.)
But suppose we don’t insist on absolute certainty. A classic puzzle called the “birthday problem” asks: How many people would be enough to make the odds of a match at least 50-50?
The answer, just 23 people, comes as a shock to most of us the first time we hear it. Partly that’s because it’s so much less than 366. But it’s also because we tend to mistake the question for one aboutourselves. My birthday.