Fight the Five Most Harmful Math Myths

MythvsFact-608x448There are several pervasive and harmful myths about mathematics that can negatively affect your child. The five most common myths and tips to avoid their pitfalls are provided below.

Myth #1: Some people have the “math gene” and others don’t.

There is NO conclusive research showing the existence of any genetic predisposition for excelling at math. In fact, in many cultures, the notion that there is a “math gene” doesn’t even exist.

How do we explain how some students seem to have an innate math ability in school? It’s easy to see a student “just get” a new concept and attribute this to natural ability. This is a false attribution. What we fail to see in those situations are all the mathematical experiences in a child’s life before school that can shape their interest and ability in math.

Many kids have had experiences with blocks, LEGOs, toys, and games along with rich conversations with adults about mathematics outside of school. It’s these experiences that make some children appear to be “naturals”.

Conversely, kids who haven’t had those experiences early on seem like they don’t have the “math gene”.

Consequences: Students who begin to struggle with math will use this myth to convince themselves that they just don’t have the “math gene” and then give up.

For kids on the other end of the spectrum, they may become convinced that they have the “math gene”. Ironically, this is bad too because it leads to a fixed mindset that causes students to quit as soon as they start to struggle with new concepts.

Solution: Constantly remind your child that no one excels without EFFORT and that struggle is a REQUIRED part of learning. You wouldn’t expect a child to play Beethoven’s 5th Symphony without ever taking a piano lesson and you shouldn’t expect to learn math without a struggle. Focus your praise on specific positive actions that your child demonstrates (descriptive praise) and encourage a growth mindset.

Myth #2: Boys are better at math than girls.

This myth is a close cousin to the first one. Once again, there is NO research supporting the notion that boys are intrinsically better at math than girls.

However, we do know that as a population, girls lose interest in math faster than boys. There are two primary reasons for this:

a) Girls prefer to know why rather than just memorize facts and algorithms. Their desire to know why often conflicts with traditional math pedagogy and this turns girls off to math. (Boys are much more likely to tolerate memorization without understanding.)

b) Girls can be negatively influenced by subtle cues from female role models (primarily moms & teachers)

Sadly, many elementary teachers don’t love math and aren’t as comfortable teaching it. Studies have shown that girls pick up on lack of confidence from female role models which leads to poorer performance in math.

Consequences: Girls are more likely to say “I just can’t do math” or “I don’t like math” and give up, prematurely shutting girls out of science and engineering fields where understanding math is essential.

Solution: If you’re a parent who doesn’t love math, keep that to yourself. Try to always project a positive attitude about mathematics (fake it until you make it).

Be sure to use the same type of descriptive praise highlighted with the first myth.

Myth #3: Mathematicians do problems quickly and never make mistakes.

Solving new problems or learning new material is always difficult and time-consuming. The only problems mathematicians do quickly are ones that have been solved before.

What distinguishes a mathematician is their ability to identify patterns, willingness to try new ideas, and their desire to persevere through “failures” that will invariably occur along the way.

Consequences: Students never learn that it’s not just OK we make mistakes in math, but that it is REQUIRED. Students who constantly expect to get the right answer on the first try, get easily frustrated and never learn to persevere.

Solution: We need to give students more experiences in problem-based learning where they are forced to grapple with new ideas and concepts, make errors and find ways to correct their own reasoning.

Unfortunately, in traditional classrooms students don’t get enough creative experiences with math.

Much more time in math class (and at home) needs to be devoted to asking questions rather than seek answer to problems that have already been solved.

Click here for ways to give your child a better experience with mathematics.

Myth #4: Speed is a measure of ability in mathematics

Many students have a false belief that being fast and first is how you prove that you are smart in math.

This comes from how we reward students in class and the emphasis on timed tests.

Timed tests are often used in an ill-fated attempt to help students build automaticity. Sadly, timed tests also cause many students to have unnecessary math anxiety that haunts them for life. (Why are there no timed tests for reading?)

Consequences: Students rush through assignments and tests trying to prove they are smart by being fast. This leads to numerous careless errors.

Solution: When working a child that rushes to get answers, make sure NEVER to tell them if they are right or wrong. When they look to you for confirmation, say “I don’t know, what do you think?”. This will force your child to start thinking about more about the reasonableness of their answers and force them to develop a habit of checking their work.

Also, remind your child that doing real mathematics is like playing a game. You don’t always win and sometimes you lose because you made mistakes. After the loss, you can give up and never return, or you can analyze the loss and try to improve.

Myth #5: A great memory is the key to excelling at math.

Just because a limited number arithmetic “facts” must be memorized, does not mean that being good at math requires a good memory. Many professional mathematicians admit that they struggled to memorize math facts.

This myth persists because, for the last several decades, math has been taught by breaking concepts down into facts, formulas and step-by-step algorithms. Students have been able to survive math class by memorization alone. Unfortunately, their memories soon fade and little is learned.

Once a student understands the patterns and structure of math, everything else falls into place.

Consequence: Students try to memorize rather than attempting to understand what they are doing, resulting in limited ability to think and solve problems. This is also one of the many reasons students struggle with word problems.

Solution: Students should be encouraged to develop a deeper understanding of what they are doing in mathematics and why. You can foster this type of mentality by asking your children the following prompts:

  • “Why did you choose to solve the problem that way?”
  • “Convince me that your answer or reasoning is correct.”
  • “How do you know that?”
  • “I don’t understand, explain it to me.”
  • “Why do you think that is true?”


As you can see, there are a lot of misconceptions about math that can be harmful to kids. Keep these in mind as you guide your child through their learning of mathematics in school.

At Math Plus Academy, we understand these myths and work every day to shatter them. Whether your child needs a boost in confidence, would gain from a greater enjoyment of math or needs more challenges, we have the perfect class to meet their needs.

Math Plus Academy is the perfect complement to school. Don’t wait, sign up for a complimentary assessment today and find out how Math Plus Academy will help your child excel in school and beyond.

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