Many people seem to believe that, with respect to mathematics, the world consists of two groups: those who are “math people” and those who are not. Underlying the very idea of a “math person” is the more fundamental notion that doing mathematics requires some sort of innate quality—a spark of brilliance or a “gift” whose presence determines whether someone is a math person or not. This is a myth: with suitable effort and strategies, as well as appropriate instructional guidance, every school student can become proficient in mathematics. There is simply no magic spark that ensures success.
While most myths are harmless, the myth that only brilliant people can do math is not. Brilliance is stereo-typically associated with some groups more than others in our society (e.g., men more than women; white people more than black people), which in turn leads to the assumption that some are more likely to be “math people” than others. In this way, the myth that math is for brilliant people acts as a barrier to math success in school (and, later, to participation in math-intensive careers) for students from groups who are not perceived to be brilliant.
What people believe is necessary for success varies across subjects. While hard work and dedication are thought to matter across the board, in some subjects this is not considered enough: a student must also have a certain degree of raw talent or brilliance. Whether a student possesses such brilliance is thought to be a matter of genes and heredity, and thus identifiable at a very young age. This is the logic of the “gifted and talented” programs that are so common in elementary schools in the United States and beyond.
In a recent survey asking roughly 1800 academics what they believed was necessary for success in their fields, Leslie, Cimpian, Meyer, and Freeland found that mathematics was one of the fields that valued brilliance the most. The general public shares this opinion. When non-academics were asked what they believed would lead to success in a variety of fields, they also attributed math success to a special gift that cannot be taught.
Although it is unclear why this myth exists, it may stem in part from common intuitions about what “doing math” entails. Some parents and teachers, for instance, might believe that math involves complex mental operations that only some students can accomplish. They might view math as so difficult, abstract and specialized that those who succeed in school must have the “right brain” for it. This idea is unfounded. Rather, there is substantial evidence that success in school math is attainable for every student, given the right training and beliefs about ability.
The myth of the brilliant “math person” is pervasive. In combination with the equally pervasive stereotype that women and minorities lack brilliance, this myth is a major obstacle for many students hoping to do well in math and pursue math-related careers. To reduce gender and race gaps in math and ensure that all children who want to pursue math-related careers feel they can do so, parents and educators will need to be mindful of the messages they send with their language and behavior. Only by working to dissociate mathematics and brilliance, brilliance and gender, and brilliance and race will we be able to repair some of the damage done by the myths that link these notions in our minds.
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