Actually, I am a maths person

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.

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16 Responses

  1. John Rowe says:

    Such a nice post, David, I really enjoyed reading this. I also see myself as a maths person but have great difficulty in describing it in that way for perpetuating a fixed mindset towards learning maths. One thing I still hear some people say, which I resent, is having a “maths brain”, which I think is much different to being a maths person. I do think, and worry, that when people see me as a maths person, some think it’s because I have a “maths brain”. Not sure if that made much sense… haha

    Great post – it resonated with me significantly.

    • David Butler says:

      Thanks for the reply John. I agree completely about the idea of a “maths brain” being unhelpful. In fact, there’s a blog post on my list waiting to be written all about that. It looks like I’d better do that one next.

  2. Telanna says:

    I wonder if by the time we become adults with jobs and families of our own, our identities feel like they all the pieces of them fit together like a puzzle. And after all this painful teenager/young adult self-exploration it feels comfortable. Changing something that you alreasy settled upon might not be as fast and would require multiple experiences.
    It took me about 2 years of hanging around #MTBoS and actively seeking engaging mathematical experiences to turn from “definitely not a math person” to “becoming a math person”. But I had intention; what if someone doesn’t?

    I think you are right about playful and enjoyable experiences that can nudge people to looking at math differently. My workshop with most engagement this year was about manipulatives when even self-identified “not math people” had fun with hands on puzzles. I remember one of the comments, “Think I’ll get some wine and continue on the weekend.” I think the math/play/art events that you organize at MLC are great way to invite people in. Maybe “math person” will never become a big part of their identity. But then maybe “not a math person” will stop being a part of it. Like, I am not a mountain biker, but I do enjoy taking my bike to the mountains on the nice summer days and stick to the easier trails with beautiful views.

    • David Butler says:

      Thanks Lana. Even if I can only help people who are seeking, I think I can take heart that the seekers can be helped! The people who do visit me in the MLC are at least seeking to not be unmaths people, and you’ve given me hope that I can help them on that journey.

  3. John Golden says:

    I also self-identify… I guess the majority of those who read this will be, though it would be great to hear from others. Maybe we can share on FB where we intersect with a more general audience?

    I tend to think of this as the result of a kind of abuse. Not to minimize other forms of abuse, but convincing someone through repeated messaging that they lack a capacity which they really do have (in my belief) is really cruel. That it is done with often the best intentions of a teacher is deadly irony.

    My usual response is to ask what they do or enjoy and then share some of how that is like math to me, and if they were taught in a way that emphasized connections, they’d see that they are doing maths already.

    • David Butler says:

      Thanks John. The cowering people do when they hear I teach maths certainly is consistent with a response to abuse. I wonder even more about how I can be a little positive experience on the day I meet them, rather than reinforce their abuse. Asking them about what they enjoy sounds like an interesting approach, and actually I have had some success with that sort of discussion too. That is, helping people realise that my ability with maths uses all the same skills as their ability with, say, poetry. There’s a blog post upcoming about that.

  4. There’s sort of an interesting distinction there, “doing” maths versus “being” maths. Being a teacher myself, and more to the point having personified something like 50 graphs into people, I can hardly deny having it as a part of myself too. On the flip side though? I am pretty terrible at finance.

    Like, I can calculate a tip… but budgeting, income tax, even knowing my own income, I’d much rather go to the dentist. I guess what I’m saying here is, “maths” is a huge umbrella. People can dislike part of it, even while accepting that other pieces are an integral (ha ha) part of themselves or other people. Trouble is most don’t get past the “dislike part of it” stage, assuming everything under the umbrella is the same, and hence being intimidated. Well, there’s a random thought, any way.

    • David Butler says:

      Thanks Greg. That’s a really interesting point. Would I claim I’m not a fruit person because I don’t like all fruit? Or does being a [insert thing here] person mean you have to like all of it all the time? I certainly don’t enjoy all maths all the time, having a similar aversion to things financial as you do. Thank you for the thought.

  5. Mike says:

    G’Day from the USA,

    I am not a maths person. I say that from the experience of never having found maths to be an easy subject throughout my academic career. I like to joke that I was okay in maths class until letters made their appearance.

    This is not to say that I don’t, at this stage in my life, appreciate the application and use of maths in my life and the world around me. I am profoundly fascinated by the scientific facts that humanity has and continues to uncover thanks in large part to maths. I’m also very fond of using maths and logic to my own advantage in my personal and professional life.

    After reading your blog post, you definitely sound like a maths person; which I would define as someone who is fascinated with and enjoys thinking about and working with mathematics separate from its applications. I don’t share that fascination. Advanced maths to me remain a bit of a mystery. I can grasp the concepts that the maths operate on, or understand what the maths are trying to prove, but it is the how of maths that eludes me.

    To use an analogy, for a non-maths person it’s like being a traveler in a foreign land. It’s fascinating and exciting, but I don’t fully understand it. I can’t speak the language, I don’t understand the culture, I’m not used to the social and physical environment.

    A maths person is like a native of that land. They have an understanding and a feel for the culture. The language comes naturally to them. They can navigate the land of maths with confidence, if not ease. I may, through time and effort, come to understand maths to a level where I am more comfortable, and can get by okay, but I don’t feel as though I can ever assimilate to the point where I will have the same experience as a native of mathsland.

    My educational journey took me on a much different path. I am a lawyer by trade and education, and a philosopher at heart. That’s the land I feel home in. I enjoy thinking about and working through logical dilemmas, moral questions, and the why of human nature and human existence. Like you, I find myself pondering such things after a conversation, or while reading a book or news article, or even while washing the dishes. It’s endlessly fascinating and a significant part of my personal identity.

    I think this is true for everyone. We all have something that truly fascinates us, and for some those things come more naturally than others. For you it’s maths, for me it’s law and philosophy, for others it’s music, or poetry, or science, etc. Like you, I like to share my interest with anyone who has the patience to listen. It’s important that the “natives” share their interests with the “non-natives.” It makes us all better as people, and deepens our shared knowledge as a species.

    Thanks for sharing your perspective.

    • David Butler says:

      Thank you so much Mike for sharing your thoughts on this! It’s a really interesting perspective to me.

      The comparison to a native of a country is making me think of immigrants. I would like people who have come to live here in Australia to see themselves as Australians, even if they weren’t born here. How can I, as a native, make them feel welcome? Even more, I’d like people who are only visiting to maybe not see themselves as Australian people, but maybe at least see themselves as “Australian people people” – people who like being around Australians even if they don’t fully understand them. It sounds to me like you’re happy to be a “maths-person person” and for others to be “philosophy-people people”.

      On that note, I would have to say that while I certainly wouldn’t consider myself a philosophy person, I definitely wouldn’t say I’m a non-philosophy person. That particular handle seems to me to be an unhelpful way to see yourself. From what you say about your appreciation of maths’s place in your life, I wouldn’t consider you a non-maths person at all! Somehow I think we need a middle-of-the-road word that doesn’t sound like it excludes all maths.

  6. Michael Way says:

    I am a maths person. I remember a co worker ( also a maths person) once say ”we as mathematician (teachers) like to count in our moments of idleness.” Yeah I find my self counting between light changes at an intersection, time between TV commercials, etc. That was one of he first moments I recall calling my self a mathematician and not just a teacher of math and not feeling afraid to say it.

    • David Butler says:

      What a simple and lovely idea “counting in moments of idleness”. For me it’s drawing figures in my head. Thank you for sharing.

  7. […] Yesterday I talked about one of the common responses to people finding out I am a mathematician/maths teacher, that of saying, “I’m not a maths person.” The other common response I get is, “I don’t have a maths brain.” (John Rowe mentioned this in his comment on the previous post.) […]

  8. Sally says:

    David’s original pat and the ideas of everyone here have made me stop and wonder: Am I a maths person?
    I enjoy thinking about maths, wondering about maths, playing with maths, teaching maths. Is this enough?
    My background is in philosophy which is lucky: thinking about thinking let’s you try on many hats. Sometimes I like wearing my mathematician hat and thinking about maths. Other times I wear my scientist hat and plan experiments; or my artist hat and create new things. There are many hats I wear, but always for me, the attraction is in the thinking that underlies each discipline.
    Perhaps the most important thing about the labels we give ourselves – “maths person” “not a maths person” “becoming a maths person” – lies in the activity of making the distinctions. We discuss what each one means to us and to others; we make distinctions and give examples in our quest to convey our feelings and desires, the things that give us joy (and the things that don’t). This conversation is so important because the same label can mean different things to different people and then lead to all sorts of misunderstandings!
    Thanks David for a post that helps us explore our own definitions and how they interact. Am I a maths person in the way you are? Sometimes? Maybe…. I don’t know yet – but I loved the opportunity to think this through some more!

  9. Its excellent as your other content : D, thanks for posting . “Age is a function of mind over matter if you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.” by Leroy Robert Satchel Paige.

  10. Sarah says:

    Some great examples of math discussions you can have with your child:

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