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Ask a Teacher: Are People Naturally Good Or Bad at Math?

Ask a Teacher: Are People Naturally Good Or Bad at Math?

Q: Are people naturally good or bad at math, or do some people just say that to excuse their laziness?

A: Everyone is naturally good at math. If you couldn't do math, you wouldn't be able to survive. And I don't just mean being able to count and make change for a dollar. For example, driving a car, riding a bike, or being a pedestrian involves judging closing speeds and estimating your own ability to accelerate or decelerate safely depending on what's coming at you, and that means you have to solve Newtonian equations in your head—and fast. If you're just having fun and tossing around the football, you might be interested to know that catching a ball requires you to solve a complex set of differential equations, and that also must be done quickly.

But you don't have a problem with that, right? I mean, barring any severe developmental disorder, with practice, it's easy as pie.

That's right, it takes work. Calvin Johnson is much better at catching footballs than most of you because that's his job, and he practices all the time. I also cheated a little bit. You can judge relative speeds and determine parabolic pathways because those things were evolutionarily advantageous to do. Cro-Magnon people didn't have calculus books or supercomputers, but they were able to figure out a lot of math because their evolution from other primates had equipped them to do so—a monkey doesn't get to live long enough to reproduce if it can't accurately judge leaps from branch to branch, and those abilities came with us as we evolved.

Schoolwork, of course, is a little different. And, in all honesty, some people have a greater aptitude for complex (or not-so-complex) mathematical operations than others. But almost everyone can do well enough to pass provided he or she puts in the requisite effort and thinks that he or she is capable of doing well.  And that's where things start to break down.

Some people don't like math. Maybe their teachers sucked, or (this is especially a problem for girls) they were overtly or subtly discouraged from thinking that math was an appropriate endeavor. So a lot of people get turned off to math, and it's a shame. There's actually a lot of elegance and beauty in mathematical concepts. And you just can't understand the world around you without math—physical and social sciences, statistics, engineering, music (yes, music), and, well, everything require you to know your way around some kind of math if you want to be good and get a deep, satisfying understanding of what you're doing.

On a more practical level, if you're having trouble, get help. I know it sounds simple, but it's often hard to admit that you need it. Talk to your teachers, your TAs (if applicable), or some of the people in your class who seem to have a good grasp of the material. Maybe someone can explain things to you in a different way, and you'll have that eureka! moment. You'll feel better about yourself, you'll do better on tests and assignments, and whole worlds of comprehension just might open up for you. Who knows? You might find yourself the Lucasian Professor some day.

So you can do the math. Yes, you. I know you may have had bad experiences before, but if we let bad experiences stop us from doing things, we'd all die locked in the closet, alone. Get out there, grab a calculator, and don't look back.

How do you feel about math?

Mr. Toche taught statistics, sociology, and human sexuality to college students for four years at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He saw, learned, and experienced more horrors than you can well imagine in that time.

Got a question for an English, science, math, writing, special ed, sociology, or PE teacher, or a specific question for Mr. Toche? Send it to!

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Topics: Life
Tags: teachers, school, math, ask a teacher

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