Thursday, March 18, 2010

What Are the Myths About Math?

Have I mentioned lately that I'm working on a book? The title has changed; now it's Playing With Math: Stories from Math Circles, Homeschoolers, and the Internet. I'm working with over 15 authors on chapters, and a bunch of my favorite bloggers are contributing posts. (If you'd like to contribute a blog post, email me at mathanthologyeditor on gmail - maybe I can fit it in. I don't have a publisher for sure yet. If the one I'm talking with doesn't work out, I'll probably go with

I posted before on math myths, but that was a long time ago, and I've been giving it some more thought because I'd like to start the book out with this. I've rearranged and changed things up a bit. But I wonder if I've left anything important out. Can you help me?

(Some of the wording in my list below comes from Mind Over Math, by Kogelman and Warren, a great book for overcoming math anxiety. But I’ve added and changed things quite a bit.)


Who does math?
Myth #1: Some people have a 'math mind' and some don't.

Math #2: Math requires logic, not intuition. Math is not creative.

Myth #3: Men are better at math than women.

What do young people need?
Myth #4: Elementary school math is all about arithmetic.

Myth #5: It's bad to count on your fingers.

Myth #6: Gotta memorize those time tables.*

How is math done?

Myth #7: Learning math is about learning how to follow a procedure, and there's lots to memorize.

Myth #8: It's always important to get the answer exactly right, and you must always know how you got the answer.

Myth #9: Mathematicians do problems quickly, in their heads, and math is done by working intensely until the problem is solved.

Myth #10: There is a best way to do math problems.

So. What's missing from this list?

* I'd better put my reply to myth #6, or I'll catch way too much flak. It's a myth only because parents worry more about that than about whether their kids are learning problem-solving skills - hoe to really use math. Here's my draft response to this myth:

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.

Drill is likely to put a fact in the part of your brain that holds meaningless information like phone numbers. But our brains are much more adept at handling the things that have lots of connections. If you can get the times tables memorized in a way where they’re being used, that’s the best.


  1. How about something along these lines:

    Math is always done by yourself without talking to other people.

    Although we do often do math by ourselves, it is a myth that mathematics isn't a collaborative activity. I think that many are surprised when they find out how much mathematics is produced through collaboration, having imagined mathematicians as isolated and socially awkward.

  2. Yeah!

    There are a bunch of myths about mathematicians mentioned in Claudia Henrion's book, Women in Mathematics: The Addition of Difference. They didn't seem to be ones the general public would care about, like 'Mathematicians do their best work in their youth'.

    This one was on that list as 'Mathematicians work in complete isolation.' But it is one that affects how people perceive math in general.

    If math programs were set up to encourage people to work together more, perhaps I would have gotten a PhD...

  3. Hi Sue,
    Came across your list from I Want to Teach Forever.
    About the times tables, memorization isn't necessarily a bad thing, but one key issue is that even when kids "know" their times tables, they don't always understand what they mean. They don't grasp the concept of multiplication in general, so while they may know that 6X7=42, they don't know that it is the same thing as adding 6 groups of 7 items.

    To add to your list a "modern" myth -- Math can only be done with a calculator or computer.
    How many times have we walked into a store or restaraunt and had the wrong change delivered, OR been told that they can't process anything because their computers are down...

  4. Great point about myth 5, I encourage and model counting with fingers, I feel it has a place through schooling, all that changes is the units you are counting in. A statement I regularly challenge with teachers is that finger counting is for infants... not if you're counting in units of 0.37 it isn't!!

  5. Sorry, I'd like to add a myth.
    Calculators should only be used when children have mastered numeracy on paper and mentally.
    I often use a calculator as a teaching tool, encouraging children to spot the pattern in certain functions, dividing by 10 or multiplying by numbers less than 1.
    Another myth is that multiplying makes a number larger, and dividing makes it smaller.
    And finally... when you multiply by 10, you just add a zero. No, no and thrice no!!

  6. Sue,

    One thing that always gets my goat is the myth that Asians are just better at math than us Westerners. You could look at language and how that has affected their advancement in basic arithmetic, which then follows throughout the rest of their mathematical education.

    Maybe I should write a blog post on that for you to use!

  7. Ms. Ashton,

    What you said is intriguing:

    "You could look at language and how that has affected their advancement in basic arithmetic, which then follows throughout the rest of their mathematical education."

    Could you elaborate on that? Seems interesting.

  8. Myth: Kids must learn arithmetic in elementary school or they'll never catch up.

    Truth: Learning can happen at any age. Force feeding rote learning at an early age can turn kids off a subject that they could have excelled in if it had been approached later and differently.

    Just found your blog. Loving it!

  9. Hi April, That's a great one, thanks! (I followed you back to your blog, and it looks one I'll enjoy.)

  10. How about this myth: "I'll NEVER use this stuff again!"

  11. Don Cohen, the Mathman, has a list of math myths (go down the page a ways) I like. It has a more concrete focus than mine:

    1. You can't take 7 from 3.
    2. When you multiply, the answer is bigger.
    3. You have to add from right to left.
    4. When you subtract the result is smaller.
    5. Fractions are small numbers.
    6. There's only one way to do something.
    7. When you add the result is bigger.
    8. When you divide the result is smaller.
    9. I can't do it unless someone tells me how to do it.
    10. Math is hard and only a few people can do it.
    11. You have to know everything about whole numbers before you can do fractions.
    12. You have to know algebra before you can learn about calculus.


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