The Math Gene Myth

December 19, 2018

The idea of child math prodigies has been a part of educational folklore as long as schools have existed.  The notion has birthed elementary school gifted programs and some of the most common clichés in teacher vernacular.

He’s got a Math brain.

She’s a little Einstein.

Some kids get it, some kids don’t.

So common are these labels that both educators and lay people accept that certain people are born to succeed in math while others are not.

I disagree.

Although some children might possess a natural intelligence that initially helps them learn math, this doesn’t account for the extreme learning discrepancy among elementary-age students.

During a child’s first five years of life, they are exposed to many different activities such as drawing, sports, and singing.  They gravitate towards those endeavors that make them feel most successful and/or earn adult praise, while rejecting those that don’t.  Focusing on the former, they practice it more and refine their skills, creating a talent illusion in the process.  When they get to school, the same scenario plays out in math class.  If the subject comes easily to them, they look forward to the class, develop confidence, and practice enthusiastically.  If they find math difficult, they approach the subject timidly and quickly lose interest.

This dynamic puts an enormous strain on early elementary school teachers, who lack the time, resources, and sometimes skill to meet all of their students’ needs.  Over-stretched, their lessons often address the top 90% of the class, leaving the weakest two or three students behind early in their schooling.  Over the next couple years, this gap widens, leading children and their teachers to believe in the math gene myth.

By the time a struggling math student reaches third grade, they have felt overwhelmed by the subject for nearly half of their life, and content becomes more challenging with each passing lesson, unit, and grade.  A math complex has developed.  Without a well-executed intervention and extraordinary student effort, the child falls far short of their mathematical potential.

Strong students face a different challenge.  Early success can lead to over-confidence and, sometimes, poor work habits.  When topics invariably become harder, they are unprepared for the rigor that learning mathematics demands.  Some students encounter this problem in elementary school.  For others, the precipice comes in junior high, high school, or college.

Those who never fall off the proverbial cliff are often labeled Prodigies.  Divine genius, others reason, is the only explanation for such exalted mathematical success.  “Geniuses” understand that although these monikers are meant as compliments, they’re actually denigrating. They remember when they first struggled with math, the hours of solitary practice it took them to overcome their deficits, and how this perseverance helped them approach future challenges the subject presented.  They also know that their success, like students who catch up to grade level after falling several years behind, will never be appreciated unless their lauders watch them study.