8 myths about learning math

Many Canadians carry a fear of math into adulthood and never really get over it. Even some professional educators are scared silly about number-based problem solving. "We had a couple of teachers in Vancouver so math-phobic that they were terrified of the subject," says Dr. John Mighton, who founded the skills-mentoring charity JUMP Math. "But after trying our program they went on to do master's degrees in math education because they realized how easy the math was and how much fun it could be."

Better math skills, better finances

Main: Poor math skills contribute to Canadian debt problems. Three experts weigh in on how math is damaging household budgets and what you can do to improve yours.

Below, we dispel eight common misconceptions that block people from reaching their true math potential.

Myth No. 1: Math problems must be solved on your first try.
Mighton asserts that most people can revisit and succeed at math challenges that at first seem impossible.

"The reason that math has a reputation of being so hard is that it's like a ladder," says Mighton. "More than any other subject, if you miss a step you can't go on." Some teachers exacerbate the associated math anxiety by teaching five steps at once or not knowing what the easiest explanation is.

"The irony is that all math can be broken down into steps that are completely easy, right up through calculus and algebra," continues Mighton. "The problem is that most people don't know how to break math down into those easy steps."

Myth No. 2: You have to be born with math talent.
Another common misconception is that only certain people have the innate ability to do math, which results in a sense of helplessness among those who struggle with numbers.

"In fact, the vast majority of people can learn math," says Mighton.

Myth No. 3: Math ability means lightning-fast mental calculations.
On the classic television series Star Trek, Mr. Spock instantly performs complex calculations in his head. In the Canadian production of Dragon's Den, David Chilton quickly evaluates how much a company is worth based on the ownership percentage proposed to the Dragons. Some viewers may conclude that math success requires "a brain like a computer."

In reality, the Vulcan first officer runs many calculations through the Enterprise's computers, while Chilton writes down at least some of his math on a pad as presenters pitch their deals.

Too often, people surrender to the notion that they don't have a "math brain." According to Mighton, the real question is whether you have the confidence or interest to develop the part of your brain that processes math.

Myth No. 4: You must master theoretical university math.
There are many different varieties of math, from the theoretical geometry used in university astronomy courses to algebraic vectors and matrices applied in computer science. The flavour of math people excel at depends on their interests and where they focus their intellectual effort.

All math can be broken down into steps that are easy.

John Mighton
Ph. D in mathematics

"Being able to do basic, practical math, as it affects life planning and money decisions is key," says Rabbior. "While some provinces and schools offer practical math courses, they are often for students who are not university-bound. Ironically, university students could benefit from practical math as much as anyone."

Myth No. 5: Being good at math means never having to practice.
The author of this article once asked the chief actuary of a large life insurance company whether he had a photographic memory. The seasoned math professional replied, "No I don't. It's all formulas and practice."

Mighton affirms this actuarial success story, pointing out that scientists are finding that intelligent practice plays a huge role in developing math skills. It's also important for people who want to learn math to do so in manageable chunks, consolidating each skill before moving on to the next.

"If you try to learn chess just by playing a whole game, cognitive science has found that you don't tend to get much better very quickly," clarifies Mighton. "But if you play mini-games where you have clear goals with just a few pieces and practice in a very focused way, then you develop abilities much more quickly."

Myth No. 6: You're too old to develop math skills.
What distinguishes people who become extremely good at math from those scared into giving up? Regardless of age, it often comes down to believing you can improve.

In her book Mindset, psychologist Carol Dweck concludes that people who have a growth mindset, meaning they believe their success depends on hard work, do much better in the long run than those with a fixed mindset. The latter assume they have to have a natural talent, and, therefore, don't work as hard because they don't want to show that they don't have the gift. Someone with a fixed mindset also gives up easily when they encounter difficulty.

Myth No. 7: Math exam pressure destroys you.
While the math discipline is precise, people who have prepared properly should relax and focus on answering test questions correctly.

"There is a lot of cognitive science evidence that our brains don't work well if we're anxious, have a sense that we can't do something, or if we're not confident," explains Mighton. "Yet we keep rolling out math programs in schools without ever testing the effect of the results on a person's perception of themselves."

Myth No. 8: Math is mind-numbingly dry and boring.
Some people cringe at number-related activities because they think that math is strictly tied to logic, diagrams and statistics -- with little opportunity for creativity and self-expression. Yet knowing where to start analyzing a math problem often involves intuition and artistic ability.

And math skills are not restricted to the sciences. Famous painter Leonardo da Vinci incorporated many mathematical concepts into his artwork. In addition to his Ph.D. in math, John Mighton himself is an author and award-winning playwright.

See related: 5 signs Canadians are not getting smart about credit card debt; Author Q&A: How your mindset affects your spending
Updated October 29, 2013

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