Google search: Ditching the dunce cap

“I always believed I was bad at stuff, and that, in turn, actually made me worse than I would’ve been if I had believed that I could do things in stages, or in time. I didn’t understand that I didn’t have to be perfect at everything I did.”

683bcd431468f408763ca43a271a94e3_largeI’m sure I’m not the only person that’s felt an immense amount of shame by the incomprehensibility of mathematics to themselves (especially in a world that overall values the sciences far more than the arts).

Math was never an easy subject for me. But having said that, even though I was never the quickest student with my multiplication tables and always felt sheer panic by those math minute worksheets, I was never truly bad at it either. I only just believed I was bad at it – but why?

I think a strong root of my gradual belief that I was poor in math stemmed from a cultural perspective. Of course, we’ve all heard the stereotype, “Asians are good at math”, and, as a first generation Chinese-Canadian individual that didn’t want to identify with my heritage until quite recently, I didn’t want to associate with the “Asian” aspect of myself. Subconsciously, I tore away all the ties I could to fuse myself better with Western society, and part of this included admitting that I wasn’t truly Asian since I wasn’t good at math.

Another root stems from the gender conditioning that usually happens between young boys and girls in that boys are typically pushed to excel in the sciences, while girls are usually pushed to excel in the arts. School counsellors would always tell us, “Oh, more girls go into arts-based courses because that’s just how their brains work,” and “Usually people are good at either arts or sciences, rarely ever both,” and that gave me all the more reason to believe that since I was really strong in English (and I was planning to go to university for English anyway), I didn’t have to (or want to) build upon my math ability.

I got a 76 in Math 10 and a 73 in Pre-Calculus 11, so I spent a lot of my time in grade 12 firmly believing that I would get a terrible mark in Pre-Calculus 12 (and I did – before my final exam I was barely passing at 59%). The biggest factor to my near-failure in math was my own apathy; my mindset was, “If I’m going to do badly anyway, why should I even bother trying?”, which I realize now was the opposite of beneficial to me (okay, I knew it wasn’t beneficial to me then, but I didn’t care, obviously).

But the weeks leading up to my pre-calc final exam were free from the distractions of other exams and priorities – I just had this one exam to focus on. So I shrugged my shoulders and studied my ass off – might as well, right? I went through the entire textbook, reviewed nearly every single question, asked for help when needed, and ended up with an 80 on the written portion final. I still got 63% in the course after the marks averaged out, but the 80 that I achieved resonated with me from there onwards.

I watched Angela Lee Duckworth’s Ted Talk on Grit and it gave me a lot of insight into why I didn’t do so well in math throughout high school. And perhaps, aside from the reasons listed above, I just didn’t get math because the parts of my brain needed for those types of operations hadn’t fully developed yet. But even still, I believed that my ability in math was fixed – that I would be as good at math as I was then than I ever would have been – and this, I think, is completely untrue.

Angela Lee Duckworth mentions a concept called “growth mindset” in this talk, which originated at Stanford University by a professor named Carol Dweck. It is the belief that your ability to learn changes with your effort and is not stagnant, contrary to my (and popular) belief!

Perhaps if I had people (including myself!) tell me that I just didn’t understand a particular math concept yet – that if I worked more, I would get it – I would’ve had a better attitude, and therefore willingness, to achieve a higher goal in math. If I had told myself that I didn’t have to be perfect at everything right away, but wanted to perfect something in a certain amount of time, I would have done much better in pushing myself to achieve those goals.

After talking to my friend about this “growth mindset” belief, I realized that this concept could’ve been applied to everything I ever thought I was bad at: typing, swimming (after I failed level 6 when I was six years old – which was actually intended for 12 year olds), baking, crossword puzzles, speaking French, sports, and so on.

I think the most important thing in order to stick to the growth mindset belief is making sure that you’re motivated enough to follow through with your goals and look at goals not as short term achievements, but as long term achievements. For example, I’ve been telling myself that I want to re-learn how to speak French, but I always have this constant reminder in the back of my head that I’m terrible at learning languages. But if I spend even just 20 minutes a day, every day, practicing my French speaking skills, a year from now I will most likely be able to converse at an intermediate level, which is much better than I would have been if I didn’t try at all!

I won’t have much time to take a math course at school because of my choice in pursuing a double major, but at some point I do want to take an Open Education course on math and teach it to myself again. Why not, right? If I work hard enough, perhaps I’ll actually find joy in numbers rather than loathing them entirely.

Featured Image: The Dunce by Harold Copping is licensed in the Public Domain in the USA.


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Self-proclaimed jack-of-all-trades. Intersectional feminist. Educator/linguist in training. Fashionista, food-lover, and fairly poor hand-eye coordination.

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