Roy Tang

Programmer, engineer, scientist, critic, gamer, dreamer, and kid-at-heart.

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Math and Privilege

In a recent STEM-focused newsletter, Noahpinion talked a bit about the myth of math being an inborn ability:

Again and again, we have seen the following pattern repeat itself:

  • Different kids with different levels of preparation come into a math class. Some of these kids have parents who have drilled them on math from a young age, while others never had that kind of parental input.

  • On the first few tests, the well-prepared kids get perfect scores, while the unprepared kids get only what they could figure out by winging it—maybe 80 or 85%, a solid B.

  • The unprepared kids, not realizing that the top scorers were well-prepared, assume that genetic ability was what determined the performance differences. Deciding that they “just aren’t math people,” they don’t try hard in future classes, and fall further behind.

  • The well-prepared kids, not realizing that the B students were simply unprepared, assume that they are “math people,” and work hard in the future, cementing their advantage.

Thus, people’s belief that math ability can’t change becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I touched upon this in passing in a post last week about programming being hard:

Some people may make it look easy, because they may have a bit more aptitude than others (due to background or whatever), in the same way that some people find math easy and others find it nearly impossible.

I was thinking about this after a convo with some friends where they mentioned they were teaching their kids to play Magic at a young age, since it helps them practice simple arithmetic. It seems like a simple thing, but that kind of thing contributes towards the kids being “prepared” for a better math education.

My dad also made a comment last week about how when we were young they (our parents) would often be bringing home activity books for us. Basically books with number puzzles, crossword puzzles, logic puzzles, that kind of thing. I loved those activity books! Among other things, I’m sure that contributed to my love of math and problem solving, which often appears as “natural aptitude” to others.

It’s a form of privilege: parents having the time and energy and know-how to instill additional knowledge in their kid from a young age. I can’t expect poor to lower-class people who work hard all day and are tired at night to be able to do that. So less privileged kids tend to grow up thinking they are bad at math, and they have trouble teaching their kids, and the vicious cycle perpetuates itself and inequality grows in succeeding generations.

During lunchtime on weekdays, I often find myself watching reruns of a certain local quiz show shown on cable TV, and I find myself alternating between laughter and frustration whenever one of the contestants fail a simple math question. Things like “what’s the decimal equivalent of 3 and a half percent” or “what’s 75% of 200” - questions I’d expect any elementary school graduate should be able to do. It’s easy to shake your head and blame the poor education system in this country - which is certainly a factor, but I can’t help but consider how this kind of inequality, compounding across generations, also contributes.

What do you do? Adults who grew up without this privilege often think their case is hopeless. “Mahina lang talaga ako sa math” (“I’m just really bad at math”), people often lament, as if it were some innate ability that they were not fortunate enough to acquire at character creation. And even if they wanted to get better at math, most will not have the time or energy to do so, due to daily life struggles. I would guess at some level it’s also a bit harder for such adults to re-learn math as their brains have already been wired not to think that way. It’s probably not an insurmountable handicap like a physical injury, but it can be challenging nonetheless.

I’m just rambling. I don’t have a point, nor a solution. I don’t know where this post was going.

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