What we mean when we say “Anyone can do math”

We need to unpack the phrase, and attendant phrases, that are so popular today, and that are in some ways so radical and unintuitive that we both believe and disbelieve them at the same time.

  • Anyone can do math
  • Everyone is a mathematician
  • You’re good at math (and don’t know it)
  • There’s no such thing as a math person. Everyone can do math!

And so on. These are correctives, and important ones, to another, earlier set of problematic (and faulty) axioms, that assumed the world is divided up into “math people” and “I’m-not-a-math-person” people. There are multitudes who believe they can’t do math when they suffer only from corrosive classroom experiences. But too unthinking an embrace of these taglines is problematic too.

The current excitement around growth mindset in classrooms around the world is meant, partly, to prevent math class from being a place where you get identified as a person who either has or doesn’t have the “math gene” (another discredited concept), and sorted accordingly into the appropriate track. Then students who are fast and know their facts are fast-tracked into more challenging and interesting mathematics, while folks who are slower or don’t have the facts down are placed in lower, slower tracks, and get the message that they don’t belong in the subject.

And yet we have a way of overcorrecting. Growth mindset is effectively a positive and useful outlook, but right now there’s a risk it gets overapplied (and under-understood) and becomes another educational fad that backfires in implementation.

When we say anyone can do math, what do we actually mean?

If we’re saying that everyone is equally talented mathematically, then we’re lying. And kids know this. You know it too. There are people who have unusual insights or abilities in mathematics. Some (e.g., Ramanujan, Nash, Turing, Johnson) get their own movies. And speaking of movies, that anyone can do math line has a counterpart in the movies, in Pixar’s Ratatouille. There, the line is anyone can cook.

“Not everyone can become a great artist- but a great artist can come from anywhere”

Ego, from Ratatouille

Ego’s parsing of the phrase anyone can cook is not obvious, and it’s not really the primary meaning of the phrase. The truth is, there are really three meanings all wrapped up there: anyone can learn to have the joy and pleasure of cooking in their life, even if they don’t become a master chef. Some people will get serious about it. And the visionaries who change the way we think about the art can come from anywhere – lock them out of the field and we all suffer.

This is what we have to mean when we insist that anyone can do math. For it to be more than an empty platitude, or a blatant falsehood, we have to be precise.

What does anyone can do math really mean?

  1. Everyone is capable of mathematical literacy. In other words, everyone has the capacity to learn the foundational mathematics that allow them to understand and participate in our (increasingly data-heavy) world. Everyone is capable of doing arithmetic, understanding fractions, percents, basic algebra and graphing, basic probability and statistics, and should be able to read a graph in a newspaper or hear a statistic on the radio without getting flustered. They should know that they have the ability to understand the vast majority of the math that surrounds them in the world if they decide to put in the work. This means they should have the numeracy to participate as citizens in our society, and also to pursue the career path of their choice. (It is shocking how many people literally give up on their dreams because it requires them to take too many math courses.)
  2. Everyone deserves to see some beautiful ideas of mathematics. Just like we send students on field trips to museums and have them read great poems and novels, part of their human inheritance is exposure to breathtaking mathematical ideas. (I’ve written about this extensively before, but if you feel like spending twenty minutes on a specific example, check out a 3blue1brown video, like this one on Hilbert Curves.) The fact that people respond with panic rather than wonder is a sign that we’re doing something wrong.
  3. A great mathematician can come from anywhere. We all have biases about what mathematicians are supposed to look like, and also what students who are “good at math” are supposed to look and act like. We need to teach like anyone and everyone in our classroom could have a gift for math that’s about to manifest… because they just might, and we may never know unless they’re given the opportunity.

This is what I mean when I say that anyone can do math. Not that everyone is equally talented (which is a lie), or equally interested in the subject (another lie). I used to say that Math for Love was dedicated to giving people a chance and a reason to fall in love with mathematics, but I know full well that not everyone will, which is fine.

What we should all be shooting for is a world where everyone is mathematically literate, and where fear or anxiety around mathematics doesn’t prevent people from doing the things they dream of doing. Everyone should see some beautiful mathematical ideas and know what it feels like. And if we can do that, we’ll also see great mathematical arising from all corners or our society and classrooms. Because there are kids who have a gift for or love of mathematics who we’re not reaching yet.

Not everyone is equally gifted in mathematics. But there are reasons to teach like everyone could be.

Comments 4

  1. Darlene

    This an absolutely excellent blog post which I myself resonate with. I almost failed high school math and feared my math curriculum course in university. When I started teaching I was bound and determined to find a way to deliver the curriculum to my students in a fun way but yet helps them learn the mathematics.
    In the past 28 years I have written and published teacher guide books for kindergarten through grade 6 titled Math For Success and obtained a Masters in Elementary math. I chose the name Math For Success because I truly believe all my students can achieve success! Each of their success may look differently but it is success and they develop a love and enjoyment for it!! Math is absolutely my passion and even as an adult my success in math is different than other adults, and this is why I continually reach out to learn. I have learned a tremendous amount from Dan and this learning has ignited more curiosity and love for math.

  2. Julie Wright

    I love this post, especially the breakdown of the different things we can honestly mean about math “for all”. But I always cringe some at statements about what “everyone” can do, even yours. Some people’s intellectual disabilities preclude learning about probability, etc. the way you describe, but they’re still part of “everyone,” aren’t they?

  3. Josh Rosen

    Dan-Thank you for this post. The part that makes me think is when you say that not everyone is equally talented in math. I am not sure what to make of the word talent. Why are people good artists? Cooks? Mathematicians? Athletes? Presumable because they have a massive amount of experiences in those areas as young people and throughout their lives. I get that some people are better at math than others, but I think it can do the students who excel in math a disservice to imply that it is just innate as opposed to their interest and devotion to the discipline.

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