Ask Larry: maths and the left-brained misconception

Mar 30, 2021

Larry Martinek, Mathnasium Co-Founder and Principal Education Officer, is a beloved educator, teacher trainer, and curriculum consultant. And together with our expert team, he has spent years refining the most powerful teaching methods and materials into our comprehensive, industry-leading Mathnasium Method™. These “Ask Larry” features are a way for Larry to share his knowledge and love of maths with our curious readers and fans.

 

Dear Larry,

No matter how hard I work to improve my grades in maths, I just can’t seem to understand it. I’m a right-brained creative person, and I don’t think my brain is wired to understand maths. What advice can you give someone like me to survive maths classes until high school is over?

Thanks,

~Melanie R.
Year 9

Melanie, I understand your dilemma, and I want you to know that you’re not alone in thinking that a creatively inclined mind doesn’t mix well with maths. It is a common misconception that maths is a strictly left-brained activity, reserved only for the structural, logical side of our brain and not the creative side.

This idea that only left-brained people are talented at maths is a myth—maths has more than one component. When you describe maths as a left-brained activity, you’re talking about the activity of arithmetic—doing computation. That type of maths is very strongly a left-brained activity.

Mathematical thinking, on the other hand, requires using the right side, the creative side, of the brain. This often involves visualising a problem, creatively re-conceiving it, and doing drawings.

Many years ago, I had a student say to me, “Larry, whenever a problem is like the one in the book or like the ones the teacher shows me, I can do it fine. But whenever they put a twist on a problem, I can’t do them anymore.” This student was clearly locked into a very procedural, left-brained approach to problem solving. She was parroting back what the teacher told her, rather than engaging in creative thought and mathematical thinking to solve the problem.

Instead of memorisation, parroting, and paper and pen reliance, focus on improving your numerical fluency and mental maths ability, and on developing number sense, so that you have the structure you need to approach maths problems in a way that activates your creative side.

As time goes on, you will be able to attack questions you never seen before. You will be able to bring together all the skills and knowledge you have accumulated and creatively approach problems with confidence.

Developing and engaging in creative problem solving won’t just help you “survive” your maths classes, it will help you to feel challenged by them. I suspect for an intelligent, creative person such as yourself, this will lead to further interest and exploration in all things mathematical.

Additionally, this type of thinking will serve you well beyond your maths classes. As students grow up and move into the workforce, they find that employers are looking to hire employees who can think on their feet, who don’t have to be led by the nose and told what to do next. You can’t learn that type of thinking overnight; it comes from years of encountering and interacting with problems using right-brained thinking as well as a mastery of left-brained problem-solving techniques. Many people can solve a problem, but it’s those who can contribute original thought and creativity to the problem who truly stand out in work and in life.

Don’t assign maths to the left-brained folks and let them have all the fun! Be proud of your creativity and use it to work with you in problem-solving, rather than using it as an excuse to distance yourself from maths.

Do YOU have a maths-related question you’d like Larry to answer? Submit it at: http://bit.ly/AskLarryMath.

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