Monday, October 28, 2013

Someone Is Wrong on The Internet; "Bad at Math" Edition

This article -- which is showing up every 15 seconds in my twitter feed right now -- is not very good.

We believe that the idea of “math people” is the most self-destructive idea in America today.
The most? Really? I'm not going to respond to this, but if you want to defend this line I'll see you in the comments.
So why do we focus on math? For one thing, math skills are increasingly important for getting good jobs these days—so believing you can’t learn math is especially self-destructive. 
This line is repeated a few time in the article. The idea that there's a shortage of STEM workers shouldn't be taken for granted.
While American fourth and eighth graders score quite well in international math comparisons—beating countries like Germany, the UK and Sweden—our high-schoolers underperform those countries by a wide margin. This suggests that Americans’ native ability is just as good as anyone’s, but that we fail to capitalize on that ability through hard work.
Yeah, it's either hard work or sub-par teaching or inequality or anything else. Sloppy reasoning.
Different kids with different levels of preparation come into a math class...The well-prepared kids, not realizing that the B students were simply unprepared, assume that they are “math people,” and work hard in the future, cementing their advantage. Thus, people’s belief that math ability can’t change becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Great! So there's no genetic advantage. It's incredibly robust advantage in skills, psyche and mindset.

What sort of comfort is this supposed to provide a kid? "The reason why you suck at math is because your parents didn't do math with you, and because you fell into a self-destructive cycle of behavior. And now you're very far behind."

It's just replacing one deterministic story with another, in my opinion.
A great deal of research has shown that technical skills in areas like software are increasingly making the difference between America’s upper middle class and its working class. While we don’t think education is a cure-all for inequality, we definitely believe that in an increasingly automated workplace, Americans who give up on math are selling themselves short.
Hear that working class? Stop selling yourselves short! You're contributing to income inequality, guys, so cut it out.
We think what many of them are afraid of is “proving” themselves to be genetically inferior by failing to instantly comprehend the equations (when, of course, in reality, even a math professor would have to read closely). So they recoil from anything that looks like math, protesting: “I’m not a math person.”
It's not obvious to me that when kids say that they're not math people that they exclusively mean that they are the sort of people that are bad at it.

Often when kids mention it to me it's in the form of an apology while they're asking me for help. As in, "Hey Mr. P, I'm really sorry but I'm totally not a math person and this isn't making sense to me." In that context it can't possibly mean "I can't get better at high school math." There it's just providing a description, something like "I'm not good at math and I've never really been good at math, and I'm pretty slow when it comes to understanding this stuff." Say what you will about kids having that attitude, but it's not the same as a deterministic view that they can't handle high school math.

And don't some kids just mean "I don't like math" when they say "I'm not a math person"? That's what I mean when I say "I'm not a vanilla person."
We see our country moving away from a culture of hard work toward a culture of belief in genetic determinism.
Not any time soon, you aren't.


I'm pretty confident that the piece is pretty sloppy. I'm less sure about all of this, though...

The core argument of the article is that your level of success in high school math is determined by the amount of work that you put in. This is largely true -- no disagreements from me about the value of hard work. But since high school students are children, what it comes down to is blaming children from not working hard enough. And that seems unfair to me. Your typical 5th Grader can't be expected to break through the sorts of disadvantages that put them behind in math through hard work. That's an unfair burden to place on a child.

I see articles like this all the time. They trumpet hard work as the cure to so many of society's evils, and the key to personal redemption. Once you commit yourself to a mindset of hard work, you've unlocked the secret to success. We lament the death of hard work and rediscover it in science, ignoring the reality that it's part of our society's cultural backbone. And -- here's the clincher -- by putting hard work on a pedestal and acting as if we've just discovered it, we let the culture of hard work off the hook for being part of the very social problems that we're lamenting.

If the culture of hard work has been around for centuries, then how come there's all this inequality? How come students don't realize that hard work will help them get better at math?

I buy what Dweck says, to an extent. (There's other research that complicates her rather clean story, but never mind that for now.) I mean, who's going to disagree with the idea that hard work helps you get better at something? (I've never met anyone who doesn't believe that.) But it's important to recognize that the notion that hard work will solve many of our social issues is an old one in this country. It's part of our culture, and it might even be part of our problems.

Take us home, Shamus Khan!
Which means that these are tremendously unequitable institutions. But instead of explaining their position relative to their social advantage, their membership within an upper class, these elites explain it by their hard work and individual skills.
Check out his book Privilege, for real.


  1. I think people confuse the difference between "better" and "proficient". Can hard work make you better at math? Yes, usually. Can it offset cognitive limitations to get you to "proficient" or "advanced" or, more commonly, "good at math"? I won't say "no", but I will say that the amount of work required, if it's possible, is not realistic.

  2. I think your complaints are pretty on-target.

    One useful distinction here--especially when it comes to the second half of what you're saying--is audience.

    To people struggling (with math, or whatever), you want to say, "Don't blame yourself for your struggles. It's not your fault. But you should work hard, because that's how you'll make things better."

    To people of success and power, you want to say, "Yes, hard work is very valuable. But it doesn't explain everything. Other circumstances and factors account for a lot of what we see in the world."

    Both hard work and luck/privilege/circumstance shape outcomes in life, and no matter who you're talking to, you want to acknowledge both influences. But the emphasis may depend on the audience.

  3. There seems to be a common assumption that perseverance, diligence, and conscientiousness are non-genetic as oppossed say to IQ. But essentially all traits of humans or individuals of other species have a significant genetic component. So someone who gets ahead by "hard work" may owe as much to their genes as someone who succeeds on the basis of sheer raw talent.

    1. Agreed. There's a gap between the way people talked about "determinism" in my philosophy coursework, and the way it gets talked about in these discussions.

  4. Second try at a response here - the internet ate my first attempt.

    So many things to unpack here Michael and I think they relate to your last post on mediocrity. I assume that this is no accident…

    I teach mostly at the AP level and I see too many students who have 'succeeded' up to this point by a warped ida of hard work. They are on an unhealthy cycle of cramming and then dispensing knowledge. They get to calculus or - to a lesser degree - statistics and sheer cramming doesn't work so well anymore. I have many international students and domestic students who struggle with the idea that advanced concepts don't simply yield to a stare down cram session. They need to be able to incorporate old ideas, look for connections, think deeply about principles. If they have been rewarded with good grades for being diligent and working hard without thinking hard then they are dismayed when they get to a certain point. I do not want to diminish the power of effort and I completely endorse many of Dweck's ideas about mindsets. However, we need to find a better way to strike a balance between stepping back to get the big picture and diving in to get our hands dirty on the small details.

  5. I think hard work is driven by motivation. In turn motivation is fueled by desire to be better at something or be at a better place. Growing up in deep poverty scared me, and I knew education would give me a chance, a chance to escape that prescribed and scripted life. It was a simple fear of going to bed hungry again that made me work hard in school. No lofty goals or romantic dreams.

    1. I'm someone who grew up in comfort, and the fear that you're talking about is totally foreign to me. I really appreciate your perspective here.

      The fear that you're describing is something that we, as a society, ought to be ashamed of. Whether you have enough to eat shouldn't be dependent on how scared or skillful you are.

  6. hmm, I am not sure I agree with either side 100% here. Research can be contradictory and what resonates with us is often the side we take. Much of what you have said is true but I wonder if there is something more general that the article implies that is the greater problem. In math we have a different struggle than with other core subjects (I believe). In no other subject does the general public wear inferiority as a badge more than math. You don't see people publicly proclaiming they can't read.
    The article, to me, is more about the fixed vs growth mindset that Jo Bohler (and dweck) talk about (that resonates with me so I'm gonna pick that side :-) ). I don't think its suggesting that perseverance and hard work are ground breaking things but instead that when students think they aren't good at math (or have low math esteem as I call it) then they are less likely to persist when things get tough. I don't think it is suggesting either that all students can become math masters but instead that by changing their mindset they can maximize their potential.

    Yes you are correct in saying that "It's not obvious to me that when kids say that they're not math people that they exclusively mean that they are the sort of people that are bad at it." But when kids do say that, it opens the door so that their " belief that math ability can’t change becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy."

    there now that we have solved that problem :-)

    1. "You don't see people publicly proclaiming they can't read."

      I actually don't think that math has it much worse than other subjects. In particular, the "People don't publicly proclaim that they're illiterate" idea is one I have little symphathy for.

      As far as the Dweck stuff goes, I don't disagree with the thrust of her research. But there's something in your comment that's worth discussing. Dweck sees herself as standing against the "self esteem" advocates. She thinks that self esteem often works against motivation to learn. For her, this is because self-esteem of the flavor of "I'm good at math" reinforces a fixed mindset about intelligence. She would predict that people who think that they are bad at math but have a growth mindset would be more likely to persist.

      Anyway, I'll repeat again that I have no issue with the idea that hard work is the key to improvement. But it's so easy to slip from there into "hard work determines success," and that, I think, is dangerous ground.