I am a mathematician and a maths teacher. Therefore it is an occupational hazard that any random person who finds out what my job is will respond with “I’m not a maths person.” The most frustrating people are my own students who I am trying to tell that my actual job is to help them learn maths. I used to tell them that there was no such thing as a “maths person”, but I have recently come to the conclusion that this is a lie. There is definitely such a thing as a maths person because I am a maths person.
Let me explain.
I used to think that the phrase “maths person” meant “a person who naturally finds maths easy and without working can do all the maths”. I’m pretty sure a lot of people do mean this when they say they are not a maths person, as if I’m going to force them to knuckle down and learn complex differential geometry at any moment.
But it occurs to me that a more literal interpretation of the phrase “maths person” would be “a person who is maths”. That is, a person for whom maths is part of their identity. And in that case, there is absolutely no denying that actually, yes, I am a maths person.
Maths is a huge part of my identity as a person. I have a favourite fraction (3/8), and a favourite fraction fact (1/3 + 1/6 = 1/2). I love the classification of quadrilaterals. I can’t help but see shapes in a building, or try to tell if a friend’s age is a prime on their birthday. I actively seek out puzzles to try. For goodness’ sake I wear home-made maths t-shirts to work every day!
Of course, maths is not the whole of my identity. I am a Christian, a husband and a father. I love to read children’s books aloud, and to write stories, and to draw and to sing. I design board games for fun. It’s just that maths is a big part of who I am. I simply would not be me without my love of maths.
So when I hear a person who says they’re not a maths person, maybe they mean that maths is not a part of who they are. Which is perfectly acceptable, to be honest. Maths doesn’t have to be an overtly obvious part of everyone’s personality!
Still, I suspect a lot of people actually see not liking maths as a part of who they are. I wish they maybe allowed themselves to have a tiny corner of themselves to be a maths person. Maybe a maths little toe, perhaps. If only so that they can incorporate approaching maths into their study of, say, nursing or economics or teaching. What frightens me most is how difficulut it is to help people when they don’t see something as part of their identity. I know I can be gentle and calm and patient and encouraging, but I still worry how much of a difference I can really make.
I am also afraid that they might look at me — clearly a maths person — and be intimidated by that part of my personality. Yet I can’t stop being who I am. I can only hope that my playful approach to it might alleviate some of that identity threat. Maybe seeing it as play will allow them to do it without seeing it as a change to their identity?
That descended a long way into despair in only a couple of paragraphs, I’m sorry. But once I noticed that there was such a thing as a maths person, it really did create this spiral of doubt. I’d love to hear some words of wisdom from the people out there, so please do leave a comment or join in the conversation on Twitter.