As a mathematics educator for the last seven years, I can attest that most folks believe they either are or are not “math people.” And that idea of innate math ability is very harmful to both those who believe they possess it and to those who believe they don’t. Furthermore, our new era of educational accountability perpetuates this fallacy and clouds the message we want our students to receive in math class.
Algebra is Not the Same as Geometry
There is most certainly no such ability that allows some students to pass algebra and others to fail. This argument is made forcefully and articulately in Noah Smith and Miles Kimball’s recent article, so I won’t rehash the point except to say that math draws on a huge range of cognitive processes. Those who are weak at arithmetic can be very good at abstract mathematics. Many students who hate algebra love geometry. Each student I have taught, including those designated as gifted and those diagnosed with severe learning difficulties, has had strengths that helped him or her learn some topics in mathematics easily, and has had weaknesses that made learning other topics in math incredibly difficult.
I tell all students alike that math requires perseverance and a willingness to take risks and make mistakes. These qualities are much more predictive of mathematical success than innate ability (if such a thing exists). Students often place themselves in the “not math people” category before they even know that each math teacher teaches it differently, or that different topics in math draw on different skills.