Friday, September 17, 2010

Beliefs and Attitudes about Mathematics

What beliefs and attitudes about mathematics do you see in your students, in society, in the media, and elsewhere? Try and think of both positive and negative beliefs and attitudes. These can be beliefs that you agree or disagree with. I'll start with a few, but please add your own in the comments.
  • If you're good at math, math problems can be solved in a relatively short amount of time.
  • People do not solve math problems for fun; they do it for school, for their job, or to balance their checkbook.
  • Every math problem has been solved by someone.
  • Math is about numbers.
  • Math is a language to describe the world.
  • If you are good at math, you are smart.
  • If you can do computations accurately and quickly, you are good at math.
  • People who are good at math are eccentric and/or not socially adept.
  • Boys are good at math.
  • Asians are good at math.
  • There can only be one correct answer.
  • If I don't know how to solve a homework problem, I must be doing something wrong.
  • Math topics/classes are sequential; I need to understand A before I can learn B.
  • It is socially acceptable to say you're bad at math.
  • Math is more analytical than creative.
  • Using a procedure correctly to get the right answer is more important than understanding why the procedure works
  • With current technology, arithmetic is not important.
  • To be an engineer, you need to be computationally strong.
  • Math is a gatekeeper.
  • The value of math is in its connection to real world applications.
  • Math teachers sleep under their desk at school. 
Ok, I guess that was more than "a few".  Hopefully I left some for everyone else.


  1. I'm only in the very early stages of a midlife career change into math education, so take these for what they're worth:

    • That math is an entirely left brain activity. I guess that relates to "analytic vs. creative," but is a little more encompassing (for example, detail oriented vs. holistic).
    • That you only get one chance to "get it" and if you don't get it then, you're hosed.
    • If you like math, you can't also like sports or art.
    • That there's only one way to learn math.

    In my experience, these are mostly adult attitudes toward math, based on friends I have that are taking supplemental math classes as part of college humanities degrees.

  2. •If you like math, you are boring.
    •Math isn't fun; it's work.
    •Ideas in math should come easily; if you don't understand them right away, then you shouldn't bother.
    •If you work hard, you can be good at math.
    •Math = computations. Anything else isn't "real math".
    •Math people like doing calculations (so they'll gladly split the bill at happy hour).

  3. Great blog, Avery!

    You're probably already aware of this, but your "Habits of Mind" post was mentioned/endorsed on a podcast. They have linked to it on their site. I'm sure I won't be the only one arriving here through this link and liking what I find.

  4. - Math is not a religion.
    - Math is only good for finding truth in mathematics systems.
    - Math is a human endeavor.
    - Math is what mathematicians do.

  5. Well, as a computer science teaching assistant I did sleep under my desk from time to time

  6. "Using a procedure correctly to get the right answer is more important than understanding why the procedure works"

    This is something I am constantly confronted with in every one of my classes from Algebra 1 through IB HL year 2. It's one of my greatest frustrations and the recipient of most of my planning and thought cycles.

    If there could ever be a magic bullet to solve this one I'd buy a whole carton. But that's just it, learning is such an individual and dynamic process that there could never be just one solution to such a problem.

    Only 30 more years until retirement... I think I still have time to work on this one.

  7. If you're interesting in reading more about society's perception of what it means to be good at math, check out Research in Practice's post about "The Talent Lie"

  8. How about these?
    - The answer is the most important thing in math. When a question asks us to estimate and then calculate we skip the 'estimate' part.
    - Math thinking stops as we walk through the classroom door into the 'real-world'.
    - Math is an individual activity, done in isolation.
    - Speed is important.
    - If we can't solve a problem in a few minutes we can't do it so we might as well give up.
    - I like it when the teacher tells us what to do and gives us notes. Then rest of the class is practice time.
    - I take lots of notes in math class. If we don't take notes we haven't done much.
    - Only certain people are successful in mathematics.
    - I like filling in worksheets because I feel productive when everything is complete. The more questions, the better.
    - We only use pencil and paper in math. When we use manipulatives it is because we aren't getting it.

  9. Cathy reminded me of another one:

    -The math we do in math class is different from the math we do in real life.

  10. * if math doesn't have an immediate real-world application, it's not worth learning.
    * the best math class is one where everyone is the same level
    * the best math students do problems quickly
    * people who do problems quickly are the best math students.
    * It is socially acceptable to say, "You'll never need to know this later" about math class.

    I'm sure I have more, but you've hit most of mine already.

  11. A couple more...
    - A quiet math classroom is a productive classroom
    - It is socially acceptable to say, "I'm no good at math", almost like being part of a club

  12. a couple more:
    * Calculus is the holy grail of mathematics. Ultimately, every math teacher should strive try to prepare students for calculus.
    * If you have not done well in math, it's because you don't have a gift for math. Being successful in math is dependent on a gift more than it is dependent on persistence.

  13. There are more negative beliefs and attitudes than positive ones, whether the contributors are teachers, parents, or students.

    Here are things I wish I'd known earlier:

    - Great literature and math overlap like rich tapestries of Venn diagrams. Poetry alone has cinquain, limerick, quatrain, and sestina.
    - The harmonic scale used to make beautiful music (and other music, too, in all fairness) is based on math. Think of it as auditory math.
    - People who love sports love math...and don't even realize it (football analyst Bill James uses a Pythagorean formula, for example, to determine expected W-L).
    - Basic road construction techniques account for changes in grade/elevation using the same geometric diagrams found in a high school textbook.
    - Math is fun, when it's called Sudoku.

  14. These are awesome! Thanks for all the input and ideas. It's amazing that this has been floating around for 4 days now and there's still room for people to add new ones where my first reaction is "oh yeah, definitely."

  15. - Math is about learning a strange series of bizarre incantations which, when applied in the specified order, lead to correct answers that are as meaningless as the questions were.

    - Each type of problem has a specific way of solving it.

    - The idea of writing a paper in math is silly.

  16. -Math is always useful
    -Math is everywhere
    -Everyone can do Math
    -Math doesn't require proper English
    -Math is always true.
    -Math is about formulas

  17. This is such a great list. I have some favorites. Some have been said but in q diffferent way:
    *I'm a math person, not English and vice versa.
    *You have to know your math facts.
    *All math people are geeks.

    Thanks for starting the discussion!

  18. Biologists don't need to understand math.
    Math is about numbers
    (for me it's about pictures)

    Great blog, btw. There is so much here I resonate with, as a microbiologist who uses math, and who teaches graduate students.

  19. My favorite from parents is:
    *My child isn't good at math because I wasn't.

    From students:
    *I'm not good at math because my parent wasn't.

  20. Math has to be done in pencil not pen. (We have to erase our mistakes)

    A person has to build skills in order to learn math

    Algebra is something done in 8th grade or high school, certainly not in kindergarten

    Every skill in math has to be explicitly taught

  21. I know I need to make a choice, I can't be good in math and art. But maybe it does't real matter, you can't make a living off either one.

  22. Well, sh*t, AdventureSkool. I must be totally effed--I'm a math teacher and a writer on the side. :)