Math Ability Isn’t as Innate as We Once Believed

For some students, math is a joy. It’s clean, precise, and objective. The answer to a question is either correct or incorrect. There’s no in-between, no ambiguity. Arriving at the answer is a process of logical unfolding. A leads to B, which leads to C, which leads to the answer. Ah, how satisfying.

Plus, if your handwriting is neat, math equations can look like works of art on the page. Numbers and symbols cascade down the page like symmetrical rain. How pretty.

For other students, however, math is anything but pellucid and satisfying. Rather, it’s a major pain. If you’re one of these students, you may know, in theory, that a math question has one correct answer, but the process of reaching that answer seems full of false starts and paths leading to nowhere. By the time you reach an answer, you’ve no idea if it’s correct.

Nature vs Nurture

Mathematical ability appears to have more to do with nature than nurture. But why is that? Why is math easier for some students than for others? Why do some kids seem to be born with an innate ability to do calculus, a natural “sense of numbers,” just as some kids are born with a natural sense of rhythm, while other kids have to work their tails off just to earn an average grade?

We used to think that math ability was to a large extent innate. The theory, basically, was that you were either born good at math or not.

We also used to think that kings and queens had blue blood, that the earth was flat, that leeches cured diseases, and that doctors didn’t need to wash their hands.

Recent research suggests that the idea that math ability is innate, though not entirely devoid of truth, is misleading. All sorts of students, the research suggests, can excel at math in courses like MHF4U Grade 12 Advanced Functions. They just have to be taught math in enjoyable and intuitive ways.

Number and Size

Recent research also suggests that teachers should empower their students to understand the relationship between number and size—density, perimeter, and area.

The relationship between number and size isn’t as abstract as it may seem. We apply this relationship every day, whether we’re aware of it or not. For instance, when trying to decide which line at the grocery store to stand in—the longer line with half-empty carts, or the shorter line with carts full to the brim—we’re applying concepts of number and size.

Different Teaching Methods for Different Learning Types

Appropriately, teachers who use hands-on methods to teach math alongside more abstract methods help their students more. Teaching hands-on methods can be especially helpful for kinesthetic learners, who learn best by doing.

Different ways of teaching math benefit different kinds of learners—kinesthetic, auditory, visual, and reading and writing. A teacher who caters to all four learning types will help their students more than a teacher who favours one or two learning methods over the rest.

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