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.

A Talk About Us and Math

I gave a 12-minute talk at the Creative Edge Conference at West LA College to a non-math educator audience. My purpose was to invite audience members to rethink their mindsets about math and empower them to rewrite their math story by engaging in creative mathematical play with children. This talk represents my argument for why we need to shift the dialogue beyond “I am a math person” or “I am not a math person.” And I outline a pathway for how we can make that happen as teachers of mathematics.

My hope is that this talk could be useful for you in your discussions and work with others. Feedback welcomed. Continue the conversation with me Twitter.

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