3 Ways to Shape Math Into a Positive Experience

Courtesy of Vanessa Vakharia.

As a teenager, Vanessa Vakharia never expected math to factor into her future.

“I wanted to be a rock star and marry Keanu Reeves. Still do,” Vakharia says in a phone interview as her band drives across Canada for a multi-week tour.

Aside from her Keanu fantasies, there were other signs that a career in numbers wasn’t in the cards — like the two times she failed 11th-grade math.

Because she was into art and music, Vakharia considered herself a “creative type.” When she enrolled in an alternative high school, she told her teacher that she was not a math person.

The educator rebuffed the notion. “She was like, ‘That’s not a thing,’ ” Vakharia recalls. 

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That’s when Vakharia’s math story began to shift. Fast forward two decades, and she is a certified math teacher who runs a Toronto tutoring business with 40 employees. (She hasn’t given up hope on Keanu, though, pointing out that he’s still unmarried.) She is also the author of the book "Math Hacks: Cool Tips + Less Stress = Better Marks." After transforming her own math narrative, Vakharia now strives to abolish the widespread view that math is “this innate super power that people are born with.”

Courtesy of Vanessa Vakharia.

Research supports her stance. As with other subjects, having a growth mindset in math matters — and not just for kids. A range of parent and teacher beliefs and attitudes toward math have been linked with children’s beliefs and performance in the subject, especially among girls. In a recent study of Chilean kindergartners and their families, for example, mothers’ math self-concepts positively predicted girls’ math self-concepts, while fathers’ math self-concepts negatively predicted girls’ math self-concepts. (The latter effect was reduced in cases where fathers engaged in home math activities with their daughters.)

In the same study, parents’ math self-concepts did not predict kindergarten boys’ math self-concepts. Adults’ gender stereotypes and math anxiety, too, have been found to influence children’s math attitudes and performance. Jo Boaler, a Stanford University education professor and author of "Mathematical Mindsets," says that when she talks to parents she tells them that “the most important thing whenever they approach maths is to be very positive about it with their kids.”

But many adults have to overcome their own negative histories with the subject first. At the end of a recent summer program that Boaler taught, 98 out of 100 undergraduates wrote about their past math traumas and how differently they felt about the subject after discovering that anyone can learn math.

So how can adults who have long-held negative beliefs about math begin to think and talk differently? Based on her own myth-busting talks with parents and teachers, Vakharia recommends three steps.

1. Unpack the cultural narrative

Shifting your math narrative requires recognition of the societal math narratives in which it is enmeshed. “As a society we have an obsession with categorizing...boy/girl, left-brained/right-brained,” says Vakharia. Those binaries get repeated in schools, families, workplaces, media and pop culture.

Vakharia likes to ask people if they have ever seen a cheerleader on TV or in a movie who is good at math. The answer, of course, is “no.” Not only does popular culture show math as being for certain types of people, it often portrays those people as geniuses and prodigies, like Matt Damon’s character in Good Will Hunting. That’s harmful, Vakharia says, because it discourages a more productive, growth-focused approach toward math.

“We also have this narrative that if it takes work to do something, you’re not good at something,” she says. “You weren’t born knowing calculus. You work at it, and some people have to work at it in different ways.”

Courtesy of Vanessa Vakharia.

2. Drill down into your experience

Once you debunk the social messages surrounding math, it’s time to make it personal. If you say you’re not a math person, break that down. Why do you think that?

Most of the time, when Vakharia asks that question, she hears common themes: The person never did their homework, they had a demeaning teacher, their parents said it wasn’t in their genes, and so on. When Vakharia asks follow-up questions about how the person tried to improve, such as seeking extra resources or teacher support, the response is usually that they tried one type of remediation but gave up when it didn’t work.

“When you really peel it back, there’s nothing in any of these stories that someone was truly incapable of doing math,” Vakharia says.

At this point, analogies can help. Think about something you have learned as an adult. Maybe it’s watercolors or CrossFit. Before taking up that practice, did you consider yourself an artist or an athlete? Probably not, and maybe you still don’t, but you know that painting and weightlifting are skills that can be learned.

It’s the same with math.

3. Try again

Once a person has re-examined their math history, Vakharia likes to ask whether they’re open to learning math now. If they say “yes,” she asks them to pick a topic they want to learn and recommends a tutor or other resources.

The key is to make it manageable. You don’t need to commit to learning an entire math course. If geometry confounded you, give the Pythagorean Theorem another shot. If your math problems began in elementary school, try something more fundamental, such as times tables or fractions.

In a June 2019 episode of the "Unladylike" podcast, co-host Caroline Ervin talked about her childhood math traumas with Vakharia and her lasting perception that she was incapable of doing math. At the end of the conversation, Vakharia asked Ervin to commit to learning one aspect of math that troubled her. Ervin assigned herself the task of revisiting SohCahToa, a mnemonic device used to understand how sine, cosine and tangent work in trigonometry.

Ervin followed through on her homework. In an interview with MindShift, she said that she set up a Skype session with one of the tutors from Vakharia’s tutoring center, The Math Guru. Though she felt some familiar math anxiety creep in at the start, ultimately, Ervin said, she “had a blast” and conquered SohCahToa.

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“Approaching math as a set of skills that simply require learning and practice helps me chill out about it,” she said. “Math isn't mystical; it's practical, and it's something I now feel I can easily revisit if there's some sort of practical puzzle to solve.”

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