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  • Writer's pictureAlex Box

We are all mathematical: debunking outdated ideas about maths ability

There’s a playful meme doing the rounds. It’s a simple bit of advice on ‘How to be a maths person’. It’s a two-step approach: 1. Do maths (any kind). 2. Be a person.

Here's a slight variation on it:

Given that experiences shape perceptions and beliefs about the world, others and ourselves... I've been wondering about this meme recently. What might a people who walk around with damaging ideas about their own maths ability think or feel in response? It's been a while since I thought and felt this way, but I've only had the opportunity to enjoy playing with numbers and experience what I'd describe as true mathematical success in recent years. But better late than never.

In my work in maths education research and development, I hear plenty of personal maths stories. Some are positive and reflect a lifelong love of the subject from a young age. These anecdotes often include mention of an adult role model, someone who sparked mathematical curiosity and play in everyday interactions. Other stories are more like my own, with painstaking recollections of ‘learning maths’ as a solitary and often involuntary pursuit, mostly made up of the rote memorisation and regurgitation of number facts and formulas.

A lot has been researched and written about damaging myths that exist about maths and mathematical ability. Maths anxiety has long been recognised to affect people of all ages and is accompanied by an overarching (and untrue) perception that some people are mathematical while others are not. It's an idea that's supported by a set of sub-myths, like the belief that ‘speed’ and ‘correct answers’ make up the essence of mathematical ‘smartness’ — just one of the damaging ideas responsible for leading people to believe they are 'not a maths person'.

Among those contributing to the dialogue about what mathematics even is (and therefore what constitutes mathematical success) are mathematicians and others working in mathematically rich fields. And it's important that these conversations are extended to the wider community.

I count my own encounter with a transformative idea about my mathematical ability serendipitous - it happened in my role as a teacher visiting into a school on the other side of the world. If it weren't for observing a maths lesson that looked and (more importantly) felt so very different to anything I'd ever seen or encountered... I may well still identify as non-mathematical and continue to suffer through everyday computation problems. With number sense, came confidence and mathematical resilience and power. While I don't plan to become an engineer or pursue any other mathematically rich profession, I now know that I could if I really wanted to.

The wider community should be able to access these ideas and have opportunities to realise, So, it was pleasing to hear Dr Emily Cook, a Senior Lecturer of STEM education at Swinburne University invited to speak on ABC Breakfast radio this morning.

Dr Cook spoke about how, culturally, a wrong answer in maths has long been seen more as a failure than in other learning areas like writing. It was encouraging to hear her point out that many aspects of maths are things that people do naturally all of the time. Things like noticing patterns, making predictions, and understanding data. She reassured listeners that mathematicians make mistakes with calculations all the time in their work. It’s totally normal.

So, if you’ve ever thought that you’re no good at maths, then know this: We are all mathematical. The idea that we aren’t? Well, that may well be the biggest maths mistake of all time.

This year’s International Day of Maths theme, celebrated today, is ‘maths for everyone’ and, as someone who identifies as formerly maths-anxious turned maths-excitable, I’m pleased to see collaborative campaigns and initiatives (here's just one) that are empowering people to reimagine what it means to do maths.


If you'd like to learn more about, or get involved in, initiatives that build mathematical confidence and enjoyment, pop over the . We've a bunch of new and innovative projects in the works.

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