Thursday, July 23, 2009

Myths About Math

I've been thinking lately about how different people have very different answers to the question "What is math?" Recently, the number one math myth I've been bumping up against is:

1. It's all about arithmetic. (Elementary school math, at least.)

and its corollary,

2. Gotta memorize those time tables.

Why do I call these myths?

1. Math is so much more than arithmetic. It's shapes, logic, problem-solving, and lots more. Arithmetic is one piece of a huge puzzle that can keep us engaged all our lives if we don't get discouraged or bored by narrowing it down.

2. Sure, they'll need to know their times tables, for all sorts of reasons. But if someone doesn't memorize easily, give them something more intriguing to think about, where they get slowed down, but not stopped, by not knowing their times tables. The skill will develop in this need-to-know context.

So I've been curious what all the math myths are that are floating around out there. Here's a list I found online, that originally comes from Mind Over Math, by Kogelman and Warren, a great book for overcoming math anxiety:

Twelve Math Myths

1. Men are better at math than women.
2. Math requires logic, not intuition.
3. Math is not creative.
4. You must always know how you got the answer.
5. There is a best way to do math problems.
6. It's always important to get the answer exactly right.
7. It's bad to count on your fingers.
8. Mathematicians do problems quickly, in their heads.
9. Math requires a good memory.
10. Math is done by working intensely until the problem is solved.
11. Some people have a 'math mind' and some don't.
12. There is a magic key to doing math.

The word myth doesn't have to mean untrue, but in this context I think it does mean that - inaccurate things lots of folks believe. And yet, there is often some way in which the belief is true, which is why it gets its power.

I am planning to do a series of posts on these myths (and any others my readers bring up), in which I explore them one by one. What's true? What's not? Why do people believe these things?

What math myths have you run into that aren't on this list?


  1. Hi Sue -

    In your posts, you should take look at the work of Alan Schoenfeld - he has written a lot about how beliefs (like some of the myths you've listed) and metacognition (how we think about how we think) have a huge influence on the teaching and learning of mathematics.

    He has posted a number of his papers here:

  2. Thanks, Dan. He was on my list of folks to read, but I hadn't yet gotten to this site. I see a few things I intend to read through.


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