Posted in Educational Reform, Inspiration, Math, Tips for Students

Why Math Is Easier Than You Think (Part 2)

The Stories We Tell

I’m just no good at math.

To learn math you have to be really smart.

I don’t need math.

I don’t like math.

Do any of these statements sound familiar?  The second reason that math seems hard is because of the stories (AKA excuses) we tell ourselves about why we can’t do it.  The statements above are representative of the main math-negative stories we tell ourselves.  If any of these types of stories are part of your internal dialogue about math, it will inevitably seem hard to you, even if the story itself is false (hint: they are all false).

Before I demonstrate exactly why each of these stories is a steaming heap of malarkey, however, it will help to understand what causes all such stories to arise in the first place.  It is important to recognize that limiting beliefs like these originate from two sources, internal and external, that tend to reinforce and support each other.

External sources. From a very early age we are all constantly bombarded with messages, either directly or by implication, that we are flawed, inadequate, unlovable, and just generally not enough: not good enough, not smart enough, not strong enough, not pretty enough, not cool enough.  Think of every situation in which you have ever felt the sting of disapproval, the pain of ridicule, the bite of shame or embarrassment, and you will just be seeing the tip of the iceberg.  Whether someone explicitly tells you “You’re stupid!”, or just looks at you with a facial expression that says “You should have known better”, or even just actively ignores you, your brain easily and correctly draws the conclusion that this person views you as inferior.  Enough data points make a worldview, and given that disapproval is the stock and trade of behavior modification in all realms of our society, it is easy for a young, impressionable brain to draw the conclusion that “thousands of people can’t be wrong — I must be an ignoramus”.  The fact is, for most of us, it actually takes work to create and sustain a healthy, realistic self concept in the face of this societal
consensus that we all suck.  The truth is, we are all animals, living extensions of the natural world, and just like no squirrel is “better” than any other squirrel, and no oak tree is “better” than any other oak tree, no human being is “better” than any other.  However, we can have beliefs that are not consistent with reality, including the belief in our own inferiority.  See if you can just sit with this idea for a moment.

Internal sources.  Spiritually speaking, we are all branches of the same tree of life, but we are also distinct individuals.  We have a physical body that is defined by a physical boundary known as skin, and we have a psychological identity that is demarcated by a psychic boundary known as ego.  The purpose of both “membranes” is the same: to delineate a distinction between “self” and “not-self”, allowing for existence and action as an independent being.  When the physical skin is cut, bruised, and punctured, it heals itself by constructing scar tissue, and the body learns to recoil from the source of the harm.  All of the affronts to our psychological self that we encounter from a very early age, every instance of “make-wrong” we are afflicted by, results in the buildup of egoic defenses.  Though egoic defense mechanisms vary widely in appearance, they all serve the same basic function: making things not be our fault.  However, any idea that anything is anybody’s “fault” is just a manifestation of make-wrong, an ineffectual judgment about what should or should not be the case.  Creating blame of any kind and taking action to improve things are two separate, and in fact, mutually exclusive activities. Chew on that for a bit, if you will.

Now we can address each of the above stories in terms of how it arises from internal and external sources, and provide iron-clad proof that each one is a blatant falsehood.

I’m just no good at math.

The subtext of this story is that “Some people are inherently good at math, and I’m not one of them.”  The external sources of this belief are all of the messages we receive that either compare us negatively to others or outright denigrate our ability: “You should have gotten this by now”; “You’ll never get this”; “Why can’t you be more like so-and-so?”  The internal source of this belief is the protection mechanism that “Since I’m not one of the lucky chosen ones, I can’t be expected to be good at math, so, naturally, it’s not my fault.”

Fact: Your brain is composed of approximately 86 billion neurons, just like everybody else’s, and they all work the same way.

Fact: The English language is far more complex and confusing than any system of mathematics, yet you were probably able to read and speak it fluently by the time you were six years old.

Now, humor me with a thought experiment.  I toss you a softball.  You catch it and toss it back.  Guess what – your brain just calculated two independent parabolic trajectories without so much as breaking a sweat.  Congratulations, you can do math.

To learn math you have to be really smart.

This is a variation of the previous story that explicitly invokes genetics.  The external sources of this belief are all the messages we receive that we are not “smart”.  The internal source is the blame-avoiding contention that you just missed out on the genetic lottery – naturally through no fault of your own. The truth is that math is an innate ability common to all humans; it is a skill that can be learned and invokes no more intelligence than tying your shoes or writing your name.  Thinking mathematically is as natural to humans as flying is to birds, swimming is to fish, and climbing is to monkeys.

Also, “smartness”, commonly known as “intelligence”, is a nebulous, socially constructed concept with no clear attributes that not even experts can agree how to define or measure.  So, even if there is such a thing as generalized, innate, differential intelligence, nobody can say definitively how much of it anybody has.

I don’t need math.

This story is technically true, but pointlessly so.  It is promoted externally by well-intended people who either want to make you feel better about not learning math, or who want you to think that you do need math, but can only come up with lame, flimsy arguments when pressed for details, or just demand that you should just take their word for it.  Being innately clever, your brain concludes, “Ha! If there were a good reason why I need math then they could explain it to me, so since they can’t it must mean that there isn’t.”  Which is a perfectly valid logical inference (the contrapositive).  Internally, of course, if you don’t need math then it doesn’t matter whether you are good at it or not, so there is nothing wrong with not learning it, leaving you, naturally, blameless.

It is true that you do not need math.  The fallacy lies in the conclusion that it is useless.  By way of analogy, I remember receiving my first cell phone while I was in college.  My parents gave it to me.  I said “Okay, but I don’t think I’ll have much use for it”, because, of course, I was used to not using a cell phone.  But, of course, once I had it, I found all kinds of ways to use it, even though I had gotten along without it just fine before.  Furthermore, once you get used to having a cell phone, it does come to seem like a real need, especially if everybody else has one.

There are people who grow into adulthood without learning how to read.  They survive, perhaps even thrive.  But if they learn how to read (which it is never too late to do, BTW), they find all sorts of uses for this skill.  Likewise, while you obviously won’t have a use for math you don’t know, whatever math you do know you will invariably find fascinating, life-enriching uses for.

I don’t like math.

“Only dweebs like math. You’re not a dweeb, are you?” So says the voice of external reinforcement for this limiting belief.  Internally, it’s not that you can’t learn math.  You just don’t want to, and no one can make you.  So therefore you aren’t dumb or incapable, you are exercising your right to do what you want as a free human being, which, naturally, no one can blame you for.  So there.

So you say you don’t like math.  Sounds pretty inviolable.  Surely you know what you like and what you don’t, right?  Yet I ask, “Are you sure? How do you know?” Show me a person who doesn’t like math and I’ll show you a textbook case of operant conditioning. Were you forced to learn math when you didn’t want to? Were you punished for not learning it when you were expected to? Were you shamed or embarrassed when you tried to learn? These are the things you actually don’t like. If you get a headache whenever you see equations written on a page, this is a conditioned response to psychological trauma.  It might feel real and automatic to you (in fact it probably does), yet like all variable emotional responses, it had to be trained, and it can be untrained just as well; not by getting positive feedback when you succeed and negative feedback when you fail, but by getting consistent positive feedback every time you try, and letting your natural sense of curiosity, consistency, and completion lead you to the “right” answers.

But that’s enough about the problems.  Next, we will look at some solutions…

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Author:

Dane Dormio is an online tutor and academic coach who specializes in helping all types of students achieve life and academic success, especially homeschooled students and those preparing for STEM careers. More information and resources can be found on his website at www.synergy-tutoring.com.

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