That Time Math and I "Broke Up"

     I was once a math person. Well at least that’s what I was told as an over-performing high school student. With high grades and standardized exam scores, I was led to believe that I was one of the few people who could actually understand math.

      Then I entered my first semester of college as a math education major. I remember thinking that my courses wouldn’t be very challenging. I was a math person, after all.

       But I quickly found myself struggling to keep up in Calculus II, which, at the time, may as well have been a course in Advanced Quantum Mechanics.

        Up until that point, everyone had told me that I was smart and good at math, so why did I feel so betrayed by my own abilities? Maybe I was not a math person after all.

       I eventually scheduled a meeting with my advisor and dropped out of the course as I contemplated changing my major.

       However, my break up with mathematics was not a unique experience for a student in the United States. Traditional American math education leads many students to learn to hate the subject and avoid it at all costs.

       Fortunately, I was able to reenter the program the following semester, except this time as a humble and challenge-seeking student who had ditched the idea that someone could actually be a "math person."

        Sadly, most students (and adults) in the U.S. experience a permanent break up with math, which closes them off from pursuing many careers. 

Misconceptions, Myths, and Our Students' Future

       There is a misconception about the ability to understand math. Over 50% of people in the United States ages 18 to 34 say that they can’t do math according to a 2010 survey conducted by Change the Equation. And so we share this myth that understanding math is reserved for the “math people.”

        Such misleading labels are a product of traditional teaching methods that focus entirely on fixed outcomes, like letter grades and standardized exam scores. Students who do well on exams are labeled as “smart” and those who perform poorly are led to believe that they are not.

         Students who lose interest in learning math at a young age eventually grow up, become parents, and relive their school age struggles through their children. And often they relay the idea that they are not a "math person," which, in turn, leads their children to feel the same way.

         This cycle has infused its way into our culture and the false idea that only certain people can understand math has become conventional wisdom. As a result, the progress of our country is suffering.

              Studies show that other countries are outpacing the United States in math achievement. Interest in mathematics is declining and we are falling behind at a time when we can’t afford to.

            In the 21st century, jobs across the country and around the world require a higher degree of math fluency and comfort. Careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) are the fastest growing sector of jobs. However, 35% of all bachelors degrees in STEM in the United States are earned by nonresident aliens, according to a study by the department of education.

         The “math person” misconception leaves our lower achieving students feeling disinterested, frustrated, and unable. It leaves our higher achieving students feeling complacent, unchallenged, and bored. When our mindset towards learning is rooted in the idea that intelligence is fixed and unchanging, then our students are easily discouraged and fearful of making mistakes.

Mindset Means Everything

      Although I was unaware at the time, it was my belief that I was a “math person” that nearly led me to give up on my pursuit of mathematics in college. Convinced that understanding math was a matter of “I can” or “I can’t,” with no middle ground, I was unable to meet the challenges of my advanced courses.

         It was not my ability that was holding me back, but my mindset.

         Students in the United States today deserve a better experience in the math classroom—one that is rooted in sound scientific research and not common misconceptions.

         The truth is that, just like learning how to read, every student is capable of understanding mathematics. We need our students to approach math with a growth mindset that values learning over intelligence and effort over final results. 

       The idea of a growth mindset was pioneered by Stanford University Professor, Carol Dweck. Her studies have shown that students who believed that their ability and intelligence could grow and change outperformed those who thought that their ability and intelligence were fixed.

        Dweck’s research has shown that increasing focus on the process of learning, rather than the outcome, helps increase a student’s growth mindset and ability.

With Math I Can...

       So how do we help our students to embrace a growth mindset towards learning mathematics?

       Embracing Dweck’s research, Amazon Education has launched the With Math I Can campaign, which is a movement that informs and encourages schools, classes, and families to pledge to stop saying “I’m not good at math” and approach the subject with a growth mindset.

        The campaign’s website shares free resources for teachers, school districts, and parents to learn more about the benefits of a growth mindset along with research-backed strategies for supporting their students and/or children.

        At the time of this writing, the campaign has over 75,000 pledges from individuals committed to working hard to growing their math understanding, attitude, and outlook.

       According to the campaign’s webpage:

Fostering the development of growth mindset in our children, especially when it comes to math, is an integral piece of their future success in any field or job. With a growth mindset, students believe that intelligence can grow. It's that optimistic outlook that we must learn to guide and support.

       If we want to give all of our kids a fighting chance at obtaining a 21st century career, then we need to show them that with hard work and the right mindset, they can achieve anything.

        And when the day comes when a child decides that she wants to become a doctor, computer programmer, biologist, teacher, or anything else she feels passionate about, every door will remain open to her. 

       For free growth mindset resources and to take the With Math I Can pledge, visit You can also support the movement by sharing your growth mindset story using #WithMathICan on Twitter and Instagram.


by Anthony Persico

Anthony is the content crafter and head educator for MashUp Math. You can often find me happily developing animated math lessons to share on my YouTube channel. Or spending way too much time at the gym or playing on my phone.

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