Everyone Can Add

Miles Kimball and Noah Smith teach math as part of their University-level courses. Based on their experience as well as their review of research, Kimball and Smith argue for the idea that every person can perform mathematical operations. The money list:

both of us have taught math for many years—as professors, teaching assistants, and private tutors. Again and again, we have seen the following pattern repeat itself:

  1. Different kids with different levels of preparation come into a math class. Some of these kids have parents who have drilled them on math from a young age, while others never had that kind of parental input.
  2. On the first few tests, the well-prepared kids get perfect scores, while the unprepared kids get only what they could figure out by winging it—maybe 80 or 85%, a solid B.
  3. The unprepared kids, not realizing that the top scorers were well-prepared, assume that genetic ability was what determined the performance differences. Deciding that they “just aren’t math people,” they don’t try hard in future classes, and fall further behind.
  4. The well-prepared kids, not realizing that the B students were simply unprepared, assume that they are “math people,” and work hard in the future, cementing their advantage.

Thus, people’s belief that math ability can’t change becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

They conclude their argument by noting that each person controls his or her ability to perform mathematical operations. Like any skill, success only comes through repetition over time.

Their math is probably more arduous than the math taught in my Principles (MKTG3100) course. I agree, though, that the lack of success in math becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. I also have enough experience to know that students can master any skill - spreadsheets, analysis, presentations, memos - with enough opportunities for practice.

Missing from their conclusion, therefore, is the lack of opportunity for repetition. Instead of focusing on several skills with few chances to practice, courses should be organized around few skills with lots of practice.