Us and Math: Using Play to Heal a Broken Relationship

“I am not a math person.”

As we all know, there’s a certain social hazard that comes with our occupation in math education. Folks often feel compelled to tell us their math stories, often declaring (with some amalgam of shame, pride, anger, and resentment): “I am not a math person.” And when they do, we’re left with a choice to make.

Do we defend math? Do we unpack their story more, offer condolences, comfort, or a hug? Do we try to change their mind and convince them that they are a math person? Ignore the comment and shift the conversation? Stare awkwardly into the distance until they walk away? Flee?

The trouble with any of these approaches is that they inevitably lead into (or actively avoid) a conversation about math identities with one side declaring “I am not a math person” and the other side trying to change their mind. And changing someone’s mind about their identity is a terrible context for productive social conversation.

So I’ve started to use this simple and earnest reply: “I am not a math person either.”

The shift has had some profound impacts on how the conversation moves forward, and I want to share more about my approach with you. 

Us and Math: How Play and Creativity Can Heal a Broken Relationship

Welcome! If you saw my “Us and Math” talk at the Creative Edge conference at West LA College, you’ll find several resources I mention in my talk below. Feel free to scroll ahead to the “Resources” section.

To my regular readers: This post is a little different than my usual posts, but there’s still something in it for you! I gave a 12-minute talk at a creativity conference to a non-math-educator audience that was very different from our usual audiences at math conferences. The premise of the talk was about why and how we need to move the conversation of our math identities beyond the simple polarity of “I am a math person” and “I am not a math person.” (Spoiler Alert: I am not a math person.)

I invite you to watch a screencast of my talk. I’d love to hear what thinking it sparks for you and how we can build the message together.