The debate about a ‘maths gene’

There are many reasons why people of all ages lack confidence with numbers, but it is scandalous that ‘I cannot do it because I do not have the right brain’ is cited so often as one of them. 

Claims that ‘it is OK not to be able to do maths’ or ‘you have to have the “maths gene”’ are based on false assumptions about what is possible and misunderstanding the evidence. 

We at National Numeracy have a vision of a world where these assumptions are challenged so that everyone starts to believe that it is perfectly possible to be confident and competent to use numbers and data to make good decisions in their daily lives. The evidence suggests that such a change requires a ‘hearts and minds’ shift in two key respects; the role of ‘positive mindset’ and the value of ‘being stuck’. 

This think piece looks at changes required and how we all have a role to play… parents, siblings, peers, and friends. 

Changing Hearts and Minds: The Role of the 'Positive Mindset'

Getting stuck when faced with a problem involving numbers and data causes many people to give up instantly. We need to help everyone to shift their thinking from ‘I can’t do this’ to ‘I can’t do this yet’. This is a really important message because everyone needs to believe in their ability to learn maths – mathematicians are made not born. Too often in the UK we talk about ‘mathematical ability’ whereas in other countries such as Japan or Singapore, emphasis is put much more on effort than ability. The skills necessary to be numerate are not inherited – rather they grow through practice. Individuals who work at it can succeed. Evidence from the American psychologist Carole Dweck shows that it is our mindset, not any notions of ability or talent, is the primary determinant of success. Too often, people miss this message so it must be constantly reinforced when working with learners at any level. Dweck’s basic idea is that there are two types of mindsets that people adopt - fixed mindset or growth mindset. When learners view their ability to do maths as ‘fixed’ it has a negative impact on their performance – when they cannot solve a maths problem (perhaps involving fractions) they interpret this as confirmation that they have reached their mathematical limits and assume there is nothing they can do about this.

In contrast, those who have a ‘growth’ view of their mathematical ability and capacity to solve problems are likely to be more successful. In a growth mindset, people believe that their basic abilities can grow through their own efforts, hard work and dedication. Dweck therefore recommends that encouraging and nurturing a growth mindset is crucial - praising people for the efforts they put into doing maths or solving numeracy problems will enhance their success. Helping people shift from thinking ‘I can’t do this’ to ‘I can’t do this yet’ and ‘…if I work at it I can extend my own capacity for being numerate’ creates a much healthier approach to learning.

Evidence from Professor Jo Boaler’s popular book on maths teaching ‘Elephant in the Classroom’ also challenges the idea that maths ability is some sort of gift that some have and some don’t. She believes, as we do here at National Numeracy, that everyone can learn maths unless they have some specific learning difficulty. Research in the US has shown that roughly 40 per cent of children have the fixed mindset, and Boaler suggests that the numbers could be even higher in Britain. We need to change this if the elephant is not to remain in the classroom.

Changing Hearts and Minds: The Value of Being Stuck

Shifting from thinking ‘I can’t do this’ to ‘I can’t do this yet’ helps to encourage a ‘can do’ attitude but it also raises the question of how people deal with ‘getting stuck’. This brings us to the second key challenge for all of us in a learning or problem-solving situation. Adopting a ‘can do’ approach means being comfortable with getting stuck on problems and expecting to not necessarily succeed the first time and to have to persevere often to reach a solution. It is important for successful learning to accept that it is OK to be stuck. However, in school and college mathematics this often runs counter to many learners’ experiences where a measure of being good at maths is how quickly you can get to the answer. It is therefore crucial to develop a culture and expectation that perseverance and persistence are essential for success and greater accomplishment in mathematics and numeracy. As in many walks of life, ‘mastery’ does not come without effort and persistence. Being numerate can be helped by developing ‘mathematical resilience’.

Historically, resilience theory has its roots in the 1970s studies of children who proved resilient despite adverse childhood environments and socio-economic disadvantage. As work in this area evolved, researchers acknowledged that resilience can derive from factors external to the child. Studies moved beyond the individual to consider the family and the community as sources of resilience. There is now a growing body of evidence to support the view that the application of ‘resilience’ to the learning of mathematics can be very helpful. The work of a number of researchers including the UK’s Sue Johnston-Wilder and Clare Lee defined resilience as engaging in endeavour requiring mathematical reasoning. They argue that developing ‘mathematical resilience’ can help to overcome negative attitudes to mathematics and develop self-belief that supports successful learning. This enables people – when faced with learning new maths skills or solving numeracy problems – to approach the situation with confidence and a willingness to persist to a solution.

We all have a role to play… parents, siblings, peers, friends.

Banishing the myth that only certain people can succeed at maths is a big task for National Numeracy. We need everyone’s help to get the correct messages out there if we are to change public attitudes to maths and convince people of all ages that ‘numeracy is for everyone, for life’. For children, there are a number of ways in which adults can help to encourage a positive approach. We highlight the three key ones on the home page of our Family Maths Toolkit and here is a bit more detail:

• Be positive about maths. Don't say things like "I can’t do maths" or "I hated maths at school"; your child might start to think like that themselves. 

• Point out the maths in everyday life. Include your child in activities involving maths such as using money, cooking and travelling. 

• Praise your child for effort rather than talent - this shows them that by working hard they can always improve.

• Point out that there is no such thing as a ‘maths gene’ and we are all capable of being confident and good with numbers.

• Encourage them to see maths as finding solutions to problems, which may well take some hard work and perseverance

• Encourage them to play maths puzzles and games at home – cards, dominoes and dice games develop numeracy skills.

We incorporated all of these ideas in the development of the National Numeracy Challenge . The ‘hearts and minds’ shift is central to being numerate, which we acknowledge within our ‘Essentials of Numeracy’ model.