Introductory Challenges

Setup

Jessica and Sam have been dating for a while now, and their relationship is getting quite serious. Sam mentions to Jessica that he would like to have a conversation with her about their views on the most important things in life to assess whether they would be compatible as lifetime partners. Jessica, a bit nervous, agrees, knowing that they have to face the big issues sooner or later.¹

They are relieved to discover that their views are quite similar on two of the three big issues—religion and money—but the conversation takes a turn for the worse when it comes to final issue: math. Sam says that he loves math, and that it has always come naturally to him. Jessica is quiet for several moments before mumbling, “I’ve never been a math person. I just don’t seem to get it.” Realizing that this point of difference could become more severe, especially if they were to have children, Jessica and Sam schedule an appointment with a counselor named Grace who happens to have a background in math education. Read the following excerpt of their counseling session and then answer the challenge questions below.

Grace: So, what seems to be the problem?

Jessica: Simply put, Sam is a math person and I am not.

Grace: Can you clarify what you mean by a “math person”?

Jessica: It seems that our brains are wired differently. Maybe it’s because I’m a girl, or because personality tests say I’m a feeler rather than a thinker, or maybe I just got some unlucky DNA. Whatever the case, I can’t do math.

Grace: What about you Sam?

Sam: I don’t know. I guess I’m the opposite. Math’s always been my best subject.

Grace: Well, it might come as a surprise to you both, but research on the brain has shown that math ability is more a product of effort than of any natural talent.

Jessica: Yeah right! I don’t believe that for a second. I’ll prove it to you. Try teaching us some of the fancy math stuff you learned in college, and I’ll guarantee that Sam gets it right away while I end up in tears of frustration within minutes!

Grace: You’re probably right, Jessica. But that doesn’t mean you can’t learn the math. Learning to do math is like training for a marathon; the more you practice, the better you get. Sam probably could learn some new concepts rather quickly, but it’s not because he was born as “a math person”; it’s because he’s in shape from years of studying.

Jessica: But I’ve been in school just as long as Sam, so we’ve had the same opportunity to study math.

Grace: Good point. Part of the problem is cultural. Students in the US constantly hear the message that some students are good at math and others aren’t. Whichever category they get placed in—or place themselves in—the message becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Students who think they’re not good at math don’t see the point in investing too much effort, so they give up quickly. Because math builds on itself year after year, these students fall further and further behind.

Sam: Is there any way for a person to catch-up?

Grace: Absolutely! Everyone can learn math. It may take perseverance, but even someone who now “hates” math can come to appreciate it.

¹ Though this scenario is written somewhat tongue-in-cheek, it’s actually based on a true story of my (now) wife and me. Just when we were getting serious, she broke up with me unexpectedly. The reason? Because she found out that I had been successful in math and she hadn’t! Needless to say, we smoothed it out and are living happily ever after.

Challenge

(to be answered by yourself or in a group)

Have you ever viewed yourself as either being naturally good at math or naturally bad at math? If so, what caused this belief? Would your view of math change at all if you saw it as something that anyone could learn, given enough time and effort?

What advice might you give Jessica in the above scenario to begin healing her relationship with math?