Math, Myths, and Motivation

I am not Stephen Curry. I will never be Stephen Curry. He’s a freak, someone whose seemingly effortless displays of greatness remind many of us why we love basketball in the first place. At the same time, his numbers are in part a product of an extreme work ethic. How many times a day do you think Curry shoots a basketball? 1,000? 2,000? More? If I shot around as often as Curry does, I would never become a professional basketball player, but I would be able to hold my own in most games of pick-up. Working hard goes a long way in basketball. The same concept applies to intelligence.

A recent article in The Atlantic addresses the malleability of intelligence. The two authors discuss a cycle they’ve seen countless times as teachers: prepared children do well on math tests and self-identify as “math people,” while unprepared children do not do as well and thus self-identify as “not math people.” Everyone has heard someone say they “just aren’t a math person” at sometime during their time in school; I’m guilty of that exact sentence myself.  This belief, however, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: one chalks up a bad math score to their innate ability and subsequently doesn’t work as hard to improve their grade.

The “I’m just not a math person” myth is a microcosm of the larger belief that intelligence is inextricably tied to genetics. Neither statements are true, but the article focuses on math because of the implications it has in today’s job market. In addition, Americans have a special preoccupation with math and its perceived difficulties:

Math is the great mental bogeyman of an unconfident America. If we can convince you that anyone can learn math, it should be a short step to convincing you that you can learn just about anything, if you work hard enough.

On the other hand, East Asian education systems focus on hard work instead of innate intelligence.  For example, Japanese schools are in session for sixty more days a year than American schools, and Japanese children spend, on average, studying more than three hours a day. While some of these traits may relate to the East Asian traditions (Confucius believed in the malleability of intelligence during his day), other are a product of the simple belief that hard work can get you very far in life.

Check the video below for an explanation of “Yay Math,” another way to battle the math anxiety that plagues our society.


The Myth of ‘I’m Bad At Math,’” Miles Kimball and Noah Smith, The Atlantic

  • Robert Ahdoot

    This is a very poignant piece. I’m Robert Ahdoot, of Yay Math, which is your featured TEDx talk in your article. I’d love to reach out and communicate with you directly, please email me at robert at yay math dt org. Thank you!

    • Corey Starbird

      Quick question..I’ve read a few articles about South Korean tutors enjoying celebrity status. It has me thinking, why don’t we take our existing celebs and get them to do tutoring videos. KhanAcademy is great, YayMath seems awesome, yet I can’t help but see a disconnect in bringing the DESIRE to learn to the masses: making math sexy. If I could watch James Franco teach Calculus or even Jennifer Anniston teach history lessons, I would bet a certain part of my brain that is used to being entertained by these people would kick in and enhance my learning experience. I guess my question is do you know of any attempts at this type of thing? I would point to as a successful prototype.

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