Busting the “I’m just not good at math” Myth

I just returned an assignment to one of my classes. The assignment was meant to be a slam-dunk “shot in the arm” heading into Thanksgiving break. Instead, I learned that some (too many) high school students are unable to do simple order of operation problems. Some lament that they are not any good at math. They never have been, and that never will be. I’ll have to read that book some day — Things Quitters Say. Want to know the true secret? Don’t quit! That’s right. There is no failure, only opportunities to learn.


There are really only two reasons why someone can’t learn math.

  1. Low band width
  2. Low effort

Low Band Width

This is just a 21st century euphemism “not that smart.” But this is the case for only a very small proportion of the population. Since this is so unusual statistically, let’s not waste time inventing excuses for not trying.

Low Effort

This is the most likely cause for mathematical struggles. Students who struggle in math concoct myriad excuses to explain their struggles. In effect, many struggling math students choose to be a victim. Rather than reaching for the cloak of excellence, they cling to the shawl of victimhood. Why? I’m not sure, but I suspect it has to do with fear of failure. If I don’t try, I can’t fail.

Repetition is the Key to Learning

Many students have been told a pernicious lie. They falsely believe that the people who do well in math are just smart… lucky to have been born good. Rest assured, anyone who has achieved mastery at any acquired skill — math or piano or poker — has spent hours repeating patterns.

True, some may have a natural liking and talent for math. But that shouldn’t prevent you from trying. Success in the math or any class is more about tenacity and not quitting than anything else.

By acknowledging that you WILL fail, but that you will eventually acquire the skills, you will have taken a huge step in the right direction.