Why do smart people enjoy saying that they are bad at math?

May 4, 2016 | Burlington

“How was skiing?” I asked my 14-year old daughter as she hauled her boot bag into the car. “Well, the ratio of snow to ground was definitely low,” she replied, adding that she had tried to figure the ratio of snow-to-ground during practice but had received only mystified looks. “Stop the math!” demanded a coach. “You are confusing us!”

Why do smart people enjoy saying that they are bad at math? Few people would consider proudly announcing that they are bad at writing or reading. Our country’s communal math hatred may seem rather innocuous, but a more critical factor is at stake: we are passing on from generation to generation the phobia for mathematics and with that are priming our children for mathematical anxiety. As a result, too many of us have lost the ability to examine a real-world problem, translate it into numbers, solve the problem and interpret the solution.

Mathematics surrounds us, yet we have become accustomed to avoiding numerical thinking at all costs. There is no doubt that bad high school teaching and confusing textbooks are partly to blame. But a more pernicious habit does the most damage. We are perpetuating damaging myths by telling ourselves a few untruths: math is inherently hard, only geniuses understand it, we never liked math in the first place and nobody needs math anyway.

Often adults are well-meaning when telling children about their own math phobia: after all, won’t it make the children feel better if they know that others feel that way as well? Research shows the answer is a resounding “no.”

Anxiety over mathematics has been recognized as a grade killer. The National Mathematics Advisory Panel of the U.S. Department of Education has found that anxious students perform lower than their abilities. What’s more, there is growing evidence that mathematical anxiety can be passed on like a virus from teachers to students as well as from parents to children.