Fighting Back Against “I’m Terrible at Math”

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Many teachers, and many people in general feel terrible at math. In the article, The Myth of “I’m Bad at Math”, by Miles Campbell and Noah Smith analyzes this phenomenon and makes a very compelling case for why this is so dangerous in our society.  They say “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.”


I grew up thinking I was bad at math.  Many of us did!  I believe this phenomenon is part of why I’ve never (until now) considered that computer programming was even worth trying to understand. “I’m terrible at math”, is something that many of us feel completely comfortable and even proud saying to pretty much anyone.

When we think about a teacher proudly proclaiming “I’m terrible at reading!”, it does not seem acceptable. We’d all probably think less of this person. So why is it acceptable with math and not acceptable with reading? This is a question all teachers need to examine. There really shouldn’t be a difference between the two.

Society tells us it is ok to be bad at math, so we accept that message and focus on other things.  Math is a huge part of so many fields of study and career paths, which is why this is so alarming.  If you are bad at math, then why would you even consider science, engineering, architecture, medicine, or computer programming?  If we examine all the different possibilities in each of those fields, we can see that being “bad at math” eliminates tons of possible careers.  Realistically, we should all be horrified that people who are “bad at math” enter the teaching field. (Which I say with full self-awareness, since I am one of those people!) However, the reality is that we are NOT all bad at math.  We just have never had our curiosity piqued in the right way.  We did not learn math in ways that captivated us, and most of us have never viewed math as something that impacts our daily lives. If we have never been captivated by math, then how wold we ever be able to offer captivating ways to learn math.

How does gender play into the issue?

It is much more culturally acceptable for girls to be bad at math than boys, and it just so happens that most teachers in the United States are women.  According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 76% of Public School Teachers are female, and I would guess that the percentage of female Preschool and Infant/Toddler Teachers is even higher.

“Studies” have told us for years that there are some fundamental differences in boy brains and girl brains. We have heard that boys are better at leadership and mathematical thinking, while women are better at empathizing and nurturing. The problem is that the “studies” most often referred to are outdated and wrong. There have been many new and better studies that indicate the opposite. However, the beliefs about gender differences are so engrained that the boy/girl myths persist.

We know that women are unequally represented in Science, Technology, Mathematics, and Engineering (STEM) careers:

Rivers and Barnett are authors of this new book.

So if neuroscience and genetic makeup don’t explain the widespread gender differences in inclinations toward math, science, technology, etc., why do such marked differences exist?  The “bad at math” myth is a vicious cycle that continues to repeat through generations, passed down by parents, teachers, and many other cultural avenues. This issue is examined in a fantastic and research-based article “Neurosexism: Brains, Gender, and Tech”, by Caryl Rivers and Rosalind C. Barnett.

One study found that “teachers of sixth-grade math students believed that boys were more talented at math than girls, even when the actual kids in their classes scored equally on tests. Parents of sixth-graders had less confidence in daughters than in sons — regardless of their girls’ actual abilities and performance scores. This attitude held true even when girls had higher grades in math than boys.”

Further, “When parents take their kids on a “learning” trip, girls can get shortchanged. In one study of kids’ and parents’ visits to a science museum, the girls and boys were equally engrossed in the exhibits. But boys were three times more likely than girls to hear explanations from their parents about what they were seeing. This gender difference popped up with kids as young as 1 to 3 years.”  

By accepting that we ourselves are bad at math and math-related pursuits, we subconsciously pass these beliefs onto children. It is important that men and women alike consider this message, but considering all this research, I think it is perhaps more important that we women start to empower ourselves. Rather than sitting back accepting society’s messages, we need to fight back against them.

How do we fight back?

The first step is to simply harness your own awareness about math, and consciously try to say positive things about math. There has been research showing that all students really need to succeed is teachers who say things like “math is fun!”, or “I like math!”.  Teachers need to be interested in math, engaged in math, and talking about math in positive ways with their students.  If teachers are excited about it, then students will get excited about it.

The next step should be to adopt questions like “How am I good at math?” or “How can I get interested in math?” I myself started to understand math concepts in a much deeper way when I started working with very young children, and watched how intuitively they understood mathematical concepts.  Watching toddlers tackle problems of spatial dimension by fitting objects through different-sized holes impressed me.  Watching them use unit-blocks to construct increasingly more complex structures made me ask myself questions about adding and subtracting.  When I see preschoolers understand multiplication by exploring Montessori materials, I realized that math is everywhere, and we are doing it all the time, even when we don’t define it as “doing math”.

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The third step reaches beyond attitudes, and requires action.  Teachers need to play with math, and explore it in hands-on ways themselves in order to get excited.  This idea was furthered by David and Frances Hawkins, who built a teacher education center in the 1970s around the idea of inviting teachers to explore, tinker, create, and discover.  They knew that when teachers experience the same types of learning that children do, they become better teachers.

This sounds difficult if you are the kind of person who has believed you are “terrible at math”, but I think it starts with looking to the children.  As teachers, we might not be interested in math, but we are interested in the children we teach. We can watch them, notice all the math they are exploring on a day-to-day basis, and explore those things ourselves.  For example, construction requires lots of mathematical thinking. How many of us have spent time building with legos or unit blocks lately? Try it! Take some legos home and build a castle. You will be surprised by all the complex thinking you have fun doing.

How does this all relate to coding?  

I think that if we are so culturally comfortable being afraid of math, coding doesn’t stand a chance!  While many teachers don’t feel good at math, we largely accept that we need to teach it.  I don’t, however, hear many teachers accept coding as something even worth having a conversation about.  How is this going to play out when we have to start incorporate coding into schools?

I wonder what it will take for teachers to begin to have conversations about coding, and be able to say things like “coding is fun!” (and mean it).

We teachers tell our students things all the time like “Eliminate can’t from your vocabulary”, and “Anything is possible with a little bit of interest and hard work”.

Well, I’ve started to start tell myself those things everyday, and just hope that they are true!

6 thoughts on “Fighting Back Against “I’m Terrible at Math”

  1. Almost ! There are one or two things which I have approached with interest and willingness to do the work, but have given up on due to complete failure to understand what it was all about (mathematical stuff) or inadequacy to control my fingers (serious piano playing). However, this has not stopped me from other stuff at all.
    Besides, math is relatively simple (he said).
    I used to get a lot of the “Oh God, your’e doing maths” followed by end of conversation !

    How’s the coding (which we used to call computer programming) coming on ?

    Check this out, it’s sort of relevant !!


    • Love the comic! That is so true! I’ve decided that it’s ok to be learning about coding during this beginning period when I’m trying to learn TO code, but not moving very quickly. It’s easy to get discouraged by my lack of progress, but as long as I’m learning ABOUT it, I’m still learning something, and that is enough for my self-esteem right now! As for my progress, I’ve been playing with Ruby, and it’s definitely easier for me to remember the rules and grammar than JavaScript.


    • I’ve also thought about what prevents us from moving forward even when there’s interest and dedication. Math is so broad, and I wonder if it’s about finding the right areas to be good at, knowing that no one is going to be good at everything. I always felt good at geometry, but still said “I’m bad at math” because of the other types of math I didn’t feel good at. I wonder how many of us minimize our strengths in this way.

      I’ve also wondered about sensitive periods, and how they might play one’s capability to learning new things. Research shows that there are sensitive periods for learning language. If you learn a second language when you are a baby, for example, you will learn quicker and are much less likely to speak with an accent than if you start learning when you are an adult. Using your example of playing piano, do you think you might have been more able to learn it if you had the interest and drive when you were a child and your fingers were still developing? (I’m assuming you tried to learn as an adult, but could be wrong) I’ve wondered what other types of sensitive periods might exist for our capabilities to learn other new things.

      I’m hoping I didn’t miss my window for programming, but also confident that I can at least one thing to understand on a deep level.


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