Are You Really “Bad at Math”?

I was visiting with a friend at a party and playing a card game. One of the players said nonchalantly “I’m bad a math” like it was a joke when we were totaling scores. Everyone smiled and continued on. I’ve heard that phrase a lot in the classroom and office hours. It’s something I’ve heard a lot growing up as well, usually from those of my peers who were struggling in math or science class. I also tend to hear it from adults. Being “bad at math” has become an odd badge of honor for people. In the U.S. it’s become socially acceptable to be bad at math. But if you visit any eastern country, no one would willing admit being bad at math. It’s an embarrassment. It’s almost like saying you’re illiterate, which is something no one wants to be admit because being able to read is one of the most basic skills. It should be the same with math. No one should be bad at math, and most probably aren’t in reality.

When we say math, people commonly think arithmetic, the nuts and bolts of addition, multiplication, fractions, etc. Math is really about patterns and logic, two things humans are quite good at naturally. Pattern recognition is instinctive to most animals and part of the survival instinct. Humans have developed that ability further and put numbers and logic to patterns. In everyday like, we all put that ability to use when we look at the clock and realize we’re late to a meeting just by the location of the hands. So we’re all naturally good at the basics of math, but it’s the technical details we tend to get lost in.

I give a short speech at the beginning of my lower level engineering courses. I explain how engineering is a skill, like music and sport. It’s something you have to practice to get better, and just about everyone can get better. It will be easier for some than others just like playing a musical instrument. Math is much the same. Being good at math means developing the skill to do math. And like all skills, it takes practice. You just have to be willing to do the practice, and I think that’s where people fail. Truthfully, if you don’t want to play the violin, you’re not going to want to practice, and you’re not going to get better. So if you have a distaste for math, then you’re not likely to want to practice. However it’s a skill we all should have. And I think you’ll find, like most skills, it starts hard and is a chore, but as you get better you’ll enjoy it more (or at least hate it less). So go out and practice the math skill.

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