A young boy struggles in front of a chalk board with a difficult math problem.

Solving the Math Gene Problem

Math teachers hear statements like “I hate math” and “I can’t do math” on a daily basis. Overcoming that negative attitude is a challenge every math teacher has to face.

I have been a math and science teacher for almost 20 years in middle school, high school, community college, and college. I’ve had students who did really well, as well as students who struggled. I was actually one of the students who struggled when I was going through school, so I can relate. It is one of the reasons why I wanted to be a teacher. I know how challenging learning can be, and I’ve always wanted my students to appreciate math and science. Of course, I’d be ecstatic if they would love it, but I understand that doesn’t always happen. So, sometimes I strive for an appreciation.

A girl struggles with math at a chalk board.Unfortunately, the students who struggle believe that they can’t do math. They say that “No one in my family can do math, so I can’t either,” or my favorite is, “I don’t have the math gene, so I have never been able to do math.” Not being successful in math has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. They have fabricated a great excuse: It is not in their DNA.

The funny thing is that there is no such thing as a math gene. The ability to do math is not genetics. All students can learn math. The problem is, what is the best way for them to learn math? Are they hands-on learners? Are they learners who need a real world example in order to understand? They could be both or neither. My job as a teacher is to figure that out.

I don’t want them to live out the self-fulfilling prophecy of “missing the math gene.” I want them to realize that they can do math because they do, every day. Granted, no one has or will come up to them and ask, “Find the x, or better yet, what is the derivative of this function?” But, they will figure out their bank accounts, either positive or negative. They will figure out how to get from point A to point B in a car. They will also figure out how to pay for various items to survive.

So, I pose these scenarios to students:

  • I want to pay my $150 electric bill, and I have $550 in my account. Can I pay it? Will I have enough to go on for the rest of the week?
  • I want to go to dinner with my friends. I know it will cost about $25, and I only have $30. I can go, but then I won’t have much money left over for the Uber driver.
  • I have to go to the doctor’s appointment at 2:30pm. It is now 10:45am. Do I have enough time to do my laundry, go to the store, and then go to the doctor’s appointment?

It is amazing how many students get the right answers with each of these scenarios. Then I tell them that they did math. Of course, they push back, “That is not the math they do in school.” Actually, it is. Math has four basic functions: add, subtract, multiply and divide. It is what you do with these functions that can make it difficult.

So, how do I help students that struggle with math Here’s my three-step process:

  1. I tell them that everyone can do math.
  2. We try to figure out the best way to explain the concept.
  3. Most of all, I encourage them to practice.

Doing math problems every day helps. I’ve always said that math is like a sport or playing a musical instrument. To get better at it, you have to do it over and over. In football, why does the quarterback practice throwing the ball into the end zone? Why do musicians practice the same piece over and over? All of this effort is to get better at it.

So, how can teachers help students get better at math?

Ask questions when they don’t understand.

Find another way of explaining the concept.

Most importantly, do it every day, over and over.

A boy tackles a math problem on a chalk board.

Doctor Catherine McKay is a teacher at Indiana Virtual School and the Chair for Professional Educational Studies at American College of Education. Cathy is also an advisor on the educational instruction of biology in The Crystal Core.

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