Saturday, September 25, 2010

Why Do People Hate Math?

In my psych classes, we’ve talked a lot about the gender divide in math – the fact that girls are less likely to pursue math or science related careers than boys are. We read articles about stereotype threat, which means that people perform based on perceived stereotypes, like a self-fulfilling prophecy. The stereotype is that girls aren’t good at math, so when students are given a math test and told that gender differences were found, girls don’t score as high as boys on average. But when students aren’t told anything about gender differences, there are no gender differences. I’ve read that stereotype threat can also just be present in the classroom, in the way that teachers treat their students. If the teacher expects a student to succeed or fail at something, their expectation is likely to come true.  I do believe that this is where the math gap partially comes from, but I wonder if whether we perceive math as a favorable or unfavorable talent also plays a role.

I don’t actually know if this is related to the gender divide, if my experience is specific to girls or if everyone feels this way. Basically, I’ve noticed major differences in the way people react to other people’s skills. If I mention that I’m writing a novel to someone who doesn’t like writing, they’re usually really impressed by that. They say, “I could never do that,” with admiration, like what they really mean to say is, “That’s cool that you can do that.” I received the same reactions when talking about theatre or dance with someone who doesn’t like being on stage. However, if I mention that I like math to someone who doesn’t, they look at me like I must be crazy. They say, “I could never do that,” indicating that they’re a better person because they can’t do math. I’ve known people in the arts who glorify the fact that they aren’t good at math, and a few even implied that my interest in math or science would somehow corrupt my creativity. I have never had a math or science teacher indicate that being creative was a negative thing.

These attitudes could impact kids who struggle with math. If someone gets the vibe that math is overrated or unnecessary, they could become complacent and figure math isn’t their thing instead of getting help after school. And I think these attitudes about math can influence the way that good math students perceive their talent. Math was my best subject in high school and I was usually one of the best in my classes, but it never meant very much to me. Writing is a part of my identity and theatre used to be, but math was never like that. Maybe it was because I never got the same amount of praise for being good at math as I did for the other things. Excelling in math just wasn’t something that made me special the way that theatre and writing did. For people with multiple interests, this sense of importance and self-identity might have an impact on what they choose to pursue.

And when did math become the opposite of art, creativity, warmth, emotion, and sociability? Do we seriously think that a person who is good at math can’t also write poetry? That a math person can’t be a people person or be just as warm and caring as someone in a non-math profession? Perhaps the stereotype threat comes not only from the stereotype of girls not being good at math, but also from the stereotype that girls are more emotional or sensitive or whatever we’re considering to be the opposite of math. That's another issue, but why do we have to choose? Is it not possible to be more than one thing?

I understand that plenty of people just legitimately don’t like math and I don’t mean to pressure anyone into it. But I would encourage everyone to acknowledge that math is a skill and a talent, and being good at math is a positive thing. Excelling math is just as good as excelling in anything else. We should start to treat it as a serious passion, as something that makes a person special and makes them who they are. I don’t mean to say that a person who has multiple interests should automatically choose math over something else, but it would be great if math were just as favorable as whatever else a person liked so that they really could choose based on what they are better at or what interests them the most.

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