Seven Myths About Math

We had a #rechat conversation this last week on how to make math more meaningful. It has me thinking about the cultural misperceptions kids internalize about the subject.

1. Math has to be practical. 
Kids love dinosaurs even though they will never "use" this knowledge in the future. Similarly, they learn about former events in social studies that might not be useful in a deeply practical sense. However, people are quick to say that math must be practical. It can't be something that we do just for fun. Indeed, "abstract" math that we never "use in life" is often the type that people mock the fastest while embracing figurative language or abstract art in the humanities.

2. I'm not a math person. 
This is sort-of a fixed mindset that says,  "I'm just not good with numbers." We have a strange cultural phenomenon where illiteracy is something people hide and innumeracy is something people boldly display as a sort-of personality trait. We don't allow illiteracy as a culture. Why are we okay with innumeracy?

3. You can't be a math and language person. 
This is the myth that there are the logical/mathematical people and the language/social people. It's often combined with outdated ideas about left brain and right brain people.

4. Math is an individual endeavor. 
I noticed this when I was in a coaching position before. Teachers would embrace cooperative learning in every subject except math. It was as if math had to be this lonely endeavor, where discourse doesn't happen.

5. Differentiation isn't necessary. 
If a kid is at a first grade reading level, we offer first-grade reading and provide extra support. However, in math, we don't typically see a ton of differentiation - and this is a subject where prerequisite skills and concepts make a huge difference.

6. There's one right way. 
While it's true that problems often have one right answer, the truth is that they often have multiple processes that work. Unfortunately, when students get the recipe-styled instruction they grow timid and bored, failing to be mathematical chefs and embracing a Rachel Ray methodology.

7. Math is the same as computation. 
Students will say "I hate math" but then they love finding and solving problems. Often, they spend three quarters of the time doing computation and never conceptualizing, forming and solving problems - much less comparing processes or setting up simulations.

photo credit: _Untitled-1 via photopin cc
John Spencer

Professor. Maker. Speaker.
I want to see schools unleash the creative potential in all teachers to transform classrooms into bastions of creativity and wonder. Read more →
Email me at john@educationrethink.com for speaking inquiries on design thinking and creativity.


  1. Sending this to my math colleagues! If we actively work to "battle" these myths, it would automatically make for better math classrooms! Really appreciate the post and your thoughts. Timely and bang on. :-)

  2. I am taking the free online Stanford class- How to Learn Math by Jo Boaler and we have been talking about these myths. I highly recommend the course!I love how it has really made me rethink math!

  3. Myth #8: This race/group/gender/grade is inherently better/worse at mathematics because it's "just who they are."

  4. Wonderful article John! Math can be stressful and sometimes hard. However, by having teachers who use different types of methods, kids will enjoy learning and after a while they will also love studying math. Lately, I’ve seen some reliable math tutors in this site.

  5. Great points you've made here. We're sounding a lot alike here. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this.

  6. This is great, but I'm yet to see why it is necessary that all students follow the advanced algebra calculus track. Why is this track a requirement? And when we have people saying that math is great and fun, but students still struggle with the more adavanced concepts, they are made to feel like they are unintelligent, because we keep saying math is or everybody. It's not just how we teach it, but what we make students study.

  7. The advanced algebra/calculus track is not for everyone, to be sure; but this is another elitist dodge akin to "there should be a vocational track for SOME students." Unlike in Europe, where students are tracked pretty early (chiefly along class lines), the US (ostensibly) tries to make all courses as available as possible to all students so nobody is prematurely shut out of becoming, say, a mathematics major in college. There does not seem to be a way to determine which students should have access to "real" (abstract) mathematics and who should be relegated to "useful" (applied) mathematics courses that is not solely determined by race and class.

  8. hreich: Part of the problem is that we are assuming that all students will take 3 or 4 years' worth of abstract math courses during high school, when some of them simply are not ready (or interested, or...) for it. I agree that we should not close the door on anyone prematurely, but I think having options in solid, meaningful, thoughtful mathematics that aren't on the "advanced algebra/calculus" track is important and something we need to do. Where I think we have fallen down is in providing those meaningful "other" options.

    The truth is, I'm not worried about those who will become math majors in college. As long as all of the math we teach is good math, we won't close anyone out. Plenty of math majors started college by taking 1st semester calculus, for example.

  9. Dear Janice,
    That's awesome! Glad you liked it.

    Dear David,
    So true. I love myth #8.

    Dear Jose,
    I'm surprised how similar we are given how different our contexts are. I'm a fan of your blog. Always.

  10. These are some very interesting viewpoints! I think that math is very important mainly because there are many jobs which require basic math skills. My little brother has been struggling though so we have been wanting to get him a math tutor in San Jose so that he will not struggle as much as he has before. He just doesn't think it's fun and that is one of our goals...to make sure that he enjoys it like he enjoys his other subjects.


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