Have you ever heard someone say, "Your daughter is a genius in social studies!" or "Your son is brilliant in history!"?
Most likely not.
In our society, whether warranted or not, those kids who are naturally good in math are considered "brains" and those who are not, even though they may be highly intelligent, often label themselves as "dumb."
In fact, from as early as first grade, children who find math difficult frequently suffer from low self-confidence. If they are not soon taught in a way that makes sense to them, students can fall far behind in their math and lose so much self-esteem that some "act out" in school, or even give up trying.
A situation such as this is not at all uncommon, and can negatively affect the way students view themselves and their ability to succeed well into their adult lives. I have heard this from many of our parents who have confided that they were and remain "terrible" in math, and they still remember the shame they felt as kids because of it.
However, performance in mathematics courses often is undermined by faulty beliefs regarding the subject and one’s own abilities. These erroneous beliefs — or Math Myths — hamper both effort and self-confidence. Like most things in life, math ability for youngsters is more about effort than aptitude.
The Genius Myth
This myth involves the belief that people who are successful in math are smarter (and maybe "better") than the rest of us. Somehow mathematical ability is viewed as higher or more enlightened than other abilities. For example, musicians may be embarrassed to be low in math skills, but mathematicians may not be embarrassed if they have low music ability. It is important to place math ability on the same level as other abilities. There is no proof that one type of skill is better than another.
The It-Should-Be-Easy Myth
Some people believe that those who do well in math find it easy and that if it is difficult, one simply doesn’t have a "math mind." The fact of the matter is that difficult math solutions do not come quickly or easily. Having difficulty in solving problems is not unusual. The only problems mathematicians do quickly are those they have done before. Speed is not a measure of ability. It is the result of experience and practice.
The Good Memory Myth
This myth implies that a phenomenal ability to recall formulas is necessary for the mastery of math. Learning math, however, does not require an exceptional memory. Instead, knowing math means that concepts make sense to you, and rules and formulas are understood, not necessarily memorized.
The Gender Myth
The Gender Myth is based on the faulty belief that men are better in math than women. Research has failed to show any difference between men and women in mathematical ability. There are, however, cultural pressures on women "to be less interested" in mathematical careers. There are also subtle pressures on women not to be smarter than men in math. As a result of this social conditioning, men are often reluctant to admit they have a problem while women are often too ready to admit inadequacy and say, "I just can’t do math."
The Who Needs it Anyway Myth
Finding math difficult, some people rationalize that only a few fields — like engineering — require math skills. Certainly, this myth is not true if we think about all the everyday math skills we use. And, of course, many career fields — from Agriculture to Zoology — use quite a lot of math. Additionally, in studying math, we learn a way of thinking that is a valuable transferable skill.
The Magic Key Myth
This myth maintains that there is a magic key or general insight into understanding all math problems. There is, however, no formula, rule, or general guideline which will suddenly unlock the mysteries of math. If there is a key to doing math, it is in overcoming anxiety about the subject, dispelling restrictive myths, and applying the same effort and skills you use to do everything else.
These myths can lead to parents often waiting till it is too late, even until their children are failing, to obtain needed help for their students. Parents mistakenly think that the child’s math abilities will somehow improve over time with little extra effort. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case. Kids who do not grasp math the way they are taught at school will invariably need auxiliary help, taught in a way that makes sense to them.
Parents should recognize the warning signs of a child who needs extra help outside the classroom. For younger children, look for one or more of the following signs:
- They are having trouble learning their 10's addition facts such as 3+7=10 or 2+8=10 no matter how much you drill
- They have great difficulty learning their doubles facts such as 8+8=16
- They can't count backwards accurately
- They forget their math facts easily
- They never lose the habit of counting on their fingers
If your child "suddenly" starts to perform poorly in the 3rd or 4th grade, you can be sure that they have not mastered the fundamentals and need immediate intervention so that they can catch up and succeed. In older children, the signs can be a bit subtler. Perhaps you begin to notice signs that their self-esteem is already disturbingly low, they say they “hate math” or are “dumb”, lack motivation and refuse to do their math, or feel increasingly anxious about upcoming math tests.
In my experience, parents have never brought their children to us for math help too soon. Rather many have waited so long to get their children the expert help that they need that their kids have become math phobic, have lost their self-confidence, and have given up. In other words, many kids we see each week need full-scale math resuscitation!
Getting the kids' math and self-esteem on track at this point is a long and difficult process that could have been avoided by getting help earlier. Summer is almost upon us and is the perfect time to have your kids put in the extra effort and practice time to succeed in math and increase their self-confidence.
Dan Gehlbach is the owner and center director of Mathnasium – The Math Only Learning Center, located in West Des Moines and within the Waukee School District. Dan lives in Urbandale. Year round, the center helps kids get caught up, keep up and get ahead while they develop confidence and a love for math. For more information call 440-MATH or consult the web site at www.mathnasium.com/westdesmoines.