The myth that only brilliant people are good at math

Why it acts as a barrier to success in school, and what can be done to debunk it
Robert Couse-Baker, flickr.com, CC-BY 2.0
Robert Couse-Baker, flickr.com, CC-BY 2.0

Have you ever struggled on a math problem and convinced yourself that you just weren’t a math person? If so, you’re not alone. From “gifted and talented” programs designed to “discover” brilliant children to parents who praise their children for being “geniuses”, the idea that math requires some sort of natural giftedness is pervasive, leading students to interpret difficulty with math as a sign that they must not have what it takes.

In a recent paper, Ryan Lei, Sarah-Jane Leslie, Andrei Cimpian and I pointed out two major problems with the idea that you need to be gifted to do math: First, it is a myth. With sufficient effort, guidance, and support, every student can become proficient in math. Second, this belief acts as a barrier to math success in school for students who are part of groups that are stereotyped as lacking brilliance.

Evidence that people view math success as requiring a special gift comes from a recent survey asking nearly 2,000 American academics what they believed was necessary to excel in their fields. Mathematicians were among the academics who strongly valued brilliance. A similar survey targeted non-academics and found that they also attributed math success to raw talent.

“Cultural stereotypes associate brilliance with white men.”

The idea that math requires brilliance is problematic on its own, but its negative effects on students’ motivation are exacerbated by cultural stereotypes that associate brilliance with white men. In fact, these beliefs have already been linked to race and gender gaps in math-intensive fields: That same survey with academics found that the more they considered brilliance important for success, the less likely their field was to have a strong representation of female and Black PhD graduates.

One way that this brilliance myth might impede the success of women and people of color is by causing people in positions of authority to be biased. Even when John and Jennifer have identical math grades, for instance, a teacher may consider John to be more talented than Jennifer, which may in turn lead the teacher to offer John more detailed feedback, more opportunities for enrichment, and so on.

“This belief acts as a barrier to math success in school for students who are part of groups that are stereotyped as lacking brilliance.”

Another possibility is that the brilliance myth affects these students’ own interest in math-related activities. A recent study showed that when jobs were described as requiring raw talent rather than dedication, women were less interested in applying, in part because they expected that they wouldn’t “fit” with the other people pursuing these jobs.

How can we dismantle these beliefs? What can educators and parents do to convince children that there’s no such thing as a “math person” and that any child can succeed in this domain? I provide four suggestions below.

1. Emphasize growth and learning over brilliance.

Ultimately, the concept of brilliance in itself is problematic, because it encourages people to believe that their abilities are fixed—either they were born with the ability, or they weren’t. Focusing on brilliance in academic settings (e.g., “You’re really smart!”) could thus reduce children’s motivation to work hard and seek help when needed, regardless of their gender. If parents and educators instead devote more time to emphasizing the role of effort and strategies in success, then they might encourage both girls and boys to adopt more beneficial mindsets about their ability.

2. Promote “open” approaches to math.

In many math classrooms, teachers use a narrow “textbook” approach in which students memorize sets of rules and then apply those rules to a series of similarly structured problems. Although this approach equips students to solve math problems from a textbook, it causes many of them to feel intimidated by problems that look even slightly different from the ones they are used to.

If, instead, teachers encourage students to engage more deeply with math by incorporating open-ended projects that are contextualized within the world outside the classroom (e.g., “What is the maximum sized fence that can be built out of 36 gates?”), then their students will be more likely to view math as a valuable, flexible skill with relevance to their everyday lives.

“To reduce gender and race gaps in math, parents and educators will need to be mindful of the messages they send with their language and behavior.”

Moreover, insofar as these complex, open-ended projects cause students to struggle on the way to a solution, they also signal that experiencing confusion and difficulty is just a normal part of doing math—it doesn’t mean that a student can’t succeed.

3. Expose children to role models.

Parents can broaden examples of math success to include members from underrepresented groups (e.g., women, people of color). This shows children that successful mathematicians are a diverse group of people. Some role models, however, are more effective than others. If parents highlight women such as Marie Curie, whose achievements are beyond what most people can hope to accomplish, they might inadvertently demotivate their children. One way to mitigate potential backfiring effects could be to have children think through the concrete steps they could take to achieve the same level of success as their role models.

4. Be mindful of the language used.

Parents and educators could try to reduce their use of descriptions such as “genius” or “gifted”, regardless of whether they’re talking about men they know, women they know, famous scientists, or the kid next door. The mere use of these terms may encourage children to view ability as a fixed trait.

Adults’ language around children may also need to change in other, more subtle ways. For example, a common way of promoting gender equality is to say, “Girls are as good as boys at math.” Ellen Markman and I have shown, however, that even though we intend statements like these to express equality, they are not fully interpreted that way. Instead, by framing boys as the standard for girls, these statements subtly suggest that boys are the more typical, higher-status mathematicians.

One solution here is to reframe expressions of gender or racial equality so that no group serves as the standard for the other (e.g., “Girls and boys are equally good at math”).

“The myth of the brilliant ‘math person’ is a major obstacle for many students hoping to succeed in math.”

To conclude, the myth of the brilliant “math person” is a major obstacle for many students hoping to succeed in math. To reduce gender and race gaps in math, parents and educators will need to be mindful of the messages they send with their language and behavior. Only by working to dissociate math and brilliance, brilliance and gender, and brilliance and race will we be able to ensure that all children who want to pursue math-related careers feel encouraged enough to do so.

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