Miles: In my experience as a writer, I have only had a piece go viral once: the Quartz column "There's One Key Difference Between Kids Who Excel at Math and Those Who Don't" Noah Smith and I wrote, which was also syndicated to the Atlantic under the title "The Myth of 'I'm Bad at Math,'" and translated into Spanish here. Noah and I have been heartened to see those ideas do some good in people's lives. I am grateful to Gabriela D'Souza for permission to share her experience here. Here are her words, which I follow with links to other resources about math learning.
Gabriela: I’m writing this mostly because when I needed to read something similar a few years ago, it wasn’t there.
In economics, it feels really hard to admit failure to your peers…sometimes harder than actually facing it. And even the ones who have posted their failures, well let’s be real, they appear to have landed on their feet okay. So you weren’t accepted into one elite university, you got into another — doesn’t really seem like failure to me. But that’s part of the problem too; one person’s definition of failure is quite different from another’s. That aside, sometimes failures are pretty black and white, as it was in my case.
Five years ago I began a rather foolhardy mission. I started a Master of Economics degree at Australian National University, without much prior maths knowledge, while working full time. I went to a high school that allowed me to drop maths in Years 11 and 12 and you better believe I dropped it. I was lucky enough that the university I picked for my undergrad turned a blind eye to my lack of maths credentials, and admitted me in to their Economics program. I struggled through calculus in second year micro, and first year business stats, but I got there in the end, graduating with a Bachelor’s degree in Economics.
I was warned that the maths in the Master of Economics program at Australian National University was hard, but I thought I’d be able to crack it. I was very wrong and in so over my head. To make matters worse, I had visa issues (an added stress that I wouldn’t wish upon my worst enemy). In the end it was all too much and I failed the maths and the microeconomics component for my master’s degree.
Going back to how it felt — it sucked. I have no words. I was consumed every day by the thought that I was a fraud; that people were going to think less of me; that I alone had *failed*. I was put on warning for academic probation. It was a low low point. I honestly thought I would never get over the panic I felt every time I walked past the Australian National University College of Business and Economics building. Typing that line out now makes me smile.
The reason this is easier to write about now is time and achievement. At the end of the year I will have completed my Master of Economics degree at Monash University.
I finally got around to trying again a couple of years after that ill-fated attempt at ANU, realising that I was seriously limiting my career options if I didn’t do it. I didn’t mess around this time. I used Khan Academy religiously, brushing up on calculus, topological spaces, lagrange multipliers (special shoutout to Patrick JMT on Youtube). I worked out problem after problem from Schaum’s Intro to Math econ. I got a tutor for my first semester.
Reading this article by Noah Smith and Miles Kimball (one of my favourite go-to articles when someone says to me, “I’m just bad at maths”) helped me realise that while I might not be naturally gifted when it comes to maths, or most things for that matter, I can sure as hell work really hard to figure out what I don’t know and improve on it. And while there was a certain fear of finding out what I didn’t know, it at least gave me something to work on.
We haven’t yet normalised it so it’s acceptable to fail. Failure is feared, avoided, and we shy away from it. But as many have noted, it makes us know what we’re better at and if we’re lucky it teaches us how to become better.
And here’s the other thing I have to keep reminding myself about failure — it helps me realise that I’m trying and sometimes that’s both enough, and all I can do.
Miles: I wrote a follow-up column "How to Turn Every Child into a "Math Person" that gives links to some of the reactions to "There's One Key Difference Between Kids Who Excel at Math and Those Who Don't" and many resources for math learning. Here are some links to posts on math learning that didn't make it into that column:
- Math Camp in a Barn
- Fields Medal Winner Maryam Mirzakhani's Slow-Cooked Math
- Barbara Oakley: How We Should Be Teaching Math
- Jessica Lahey: Teaching Math to People Who Think They Hate It
- My Advice to Qatar: Make Math Education a Research Grand Challenge
- Laura Overdeck: Math for Pleasure
- Jethra Spector: Using Miles and Noah's Math Column in the Classroom
- Warren Henning: A Software Engineer’s Adventures In Learning Mathematics (link)
- Laura Overdeck: Street Math
- 21 GIFs That Explain Mathematical Concepts | IFLScience (link)
- Muhammed Chaudhry: College Success Starts in Math Class (link)
- Evidence that Bedtime Math Boosts Kids’ Math Performance
- Examining the Statistics in “Math at Home Adds Up to Achievement in School” by Talia Berkowitz, Marjorie Schaeffer, Erin Maloney, Lori Peterson, Courtney Gregor, Susan Levine and Sian Beilock
- Gabrielle Emanuel: Houman Harouni's New Book on the History of Math Education (link)
- Jenny Anderson: Teaching Kids Philosophy Makes Them Smarter in Math and English (link)
- Jenny Anderson: The best way to learn math is to learn how to fail productively (link)
- Calculus is Hard. Women Are More Likely to Think That Means They’re Not Smart Enough for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math
- A Mathematician Has Created a Teaching Method That’s Proving There’s No Such Thing as a Bad Math Student (link)
- You, Too, Are a Math Person; When Race Comes Into the Picture, That Has to Be Reiterated
- Math Learning for Kids Who Have a Tough Time
- Jo Boaler and Lang Chen: Why Kids Should Use Their Fingers in Math Class
Also, here are some Twitter discussions on math learning:
- Genes vs. Hard Work in Learning Math
- Noah Smith's Tweetstorm on Making Everyone a 'Math Person'
- The Vicious Self-Fulfilling Prophecy That You Can't Do Math
- Tweets about How to Turn Every Child into a "Math Person"