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It’s Time to Stamp Out the Phrase “I’m Bad at Math”

Shaughnessy_52010by NCTM President J. Michael Shaughnessy
NCTM Summing Up, October 2010

 As mathematics teachers, we hear “I was never any good at math” more than any other sector of our society. Rather than sympathizing with people who publicly—and proudly—make this pronouncement, it’s time for us to take them to task. The social acceptability of not being good at math has now reached epidemic proportions in our country. It has even been nationally broadcast in a recent popular film, escaping from the lips of a famous movie star. Enough, I say! It is not OK to proclaim that “I was never any good at math.” The “bad at math” self-concept then gets passed from one generation to the next like a flu virus, and it infects the attitudes of future generations. One never hears people say that “I was never any good at English” or “I don’t do vowels.” We need to fight back on two fronts—in the public arena and in our classrooms.

In the public arena, we need to speak up. We need to remind parents, guardians and caregivers that saying  “I was never any good at math” is unacceptable. When we meet  during family conferences, we can encourage them to help us spread the message to delete this offending statement from any social discourse. Boasting about this deficiency turns our students off mathematics and damages their attitudes toward it. When we hear this phrase at a social gathering or while sharing our backgrounds with new acquaintances, we can alert people to the harm that such statements can do to future generations. Collectively, we all need to protect and preserve our nation’s mathematical environment, sustain the power of mathematics and keep our nation’s attitude toward mathematics from eroding.

In our classrooms, the most important thing we can do for our students is to instill in them how wonderful our subject is—that “math is cool.” Mathematics is powerful. It helps us interpret and understand our world in new and exciting ways. Isn’t it amazing that there are some numbers that factor multiple ways and others that don’t? Isn’t it interesting that there are only five solids that can be built with faces that have just one regular polygon? Isn’t it remarkable that   .999999999 . . .  is equal to 1? Sometimes we forget that true wonders can be found within the mathematical ideas that we teach everyday. 

To instill positive and productive attitudes toward mathematics lies within our own hands—in our teaching. No standards on earth—be they state or national—no testing or assessment procedures, no Race to the Top or mandates from above can make as much of a difference as we can every day through our own instructional practices. NCTM's positions on teaching practices and instructional approaches can be found in our documents  Professional Standards for Teaching Mathematics and in the recent update, Mathematics Teaching Today. Among the goals for our practice for all our students, as promoted in Mathematics Teaching Today, are these:

  • Design and implement mathematical experiences that stimulate student's interests and intellect
  • Orchestrate classroom discourse in ways that promote the exploration and growth of mathematical ideas
  • Use, and help students' use, technology and other tools to pursue mathematics
  • Promote active student engagement in problem solving, reasoning, communicating, making connections and using multiple representations of mathematical ideas

Each of these practices—introducing interesting mathematical questions, promoting discourse, using technology and empowering students to be actively engaged—can help us stamp out the national bad-at-math comment. We need to provide opportunities for our students to become excited about mathematics while acknowledging and applauding their successes. These are necessary conditions that must be in place before we can make any progress on improving mathematical achievement.  

I believe that we are at a point in our nation’s mathematics education where we need to fight back and launch a national campaign to raise the national image of our subject. As president of NCTM, I want all our students to have the best chance at becoming excited about learning mathematics. As a start, let us all agree to work to convince our students that “math is indeed cool.”

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