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Math ability- Nature v. nuture

post #1 of 6
Thread Starter 

I thought this was interesting commentary on kid's math abilities in the USA. It seems that kids who are initially good at math continue to work hard, while kids who don't start as strong don't progress as well.

I also found the 'entity orientation' (intelligence can't be changed) v. changing your intelligence level with hard work to be interesting.

So... what do you all think? Can intelligence be changed with hard work? Does the amount of knowledge when entering school have an impact on a child's later academic career? Nature or nurture?
post #2 of 6
Originally Posted by KSLaura View Post

Can intelligence be changed with hard work? 


Define intelligence. :lol


I think that if you define intelligence as intellectual potential -- a prediction of one's future ability to learn -- then 'changes' in intelligence must be interpreted as flaws in the measurement system. But I really don't believe there is such a thing as intelligence in that sense. In this age, where we understand how powerful neuroplasticity is, I think we're kidding ourselves if we believe intellectual potential is hard-wired by birth or age 7 or whatever as a result of genetics. 


Originally Posted by KSLaura View Post

Does the amount of knowledge when entering school have an impact on a child's later academic career? 


Yes. I'm pretty sure it has a huge effect. 


I haven't observed this phenomenon as clearly in the realm of math as I have as it pertains to reading, but I'm sure it applies almost as much. Here's the what I've seen: if you enter school and are not ready to learn to read by the expected age of 7 or so, it is highly unlikely that you will ever be a good student with strong academic skills. Why? Because your inability to read well by 3rd grade will become rolled into your self-concept: you will always view yourself and be viewed by others as not terribly smart. But when my eldest dd was growing up as an unschooler, two of her friends did not really read at all until age 10. Because they were not in a school situation where they were reminded over and over every day that they were not measuring up and could not do this important thing that all their peers could do, they did not define themselves by their lack of reading; they just kept merrily learning like crazy in ways that didn't depend on their literacy. They learned to read very well around age 10, and that was fine, it required no heroics. And both entered high school or college where they were placed in AP and accelerated classes, and are excelling at the post-secondary level. One just defended her masters thesis and has landed a comfy fellowship, another is on a full-ride scholarship at an innovative private university.


Literacy might be considered a special case, because so much of other learning within schools depends on solid literacy skills being obtained by 3rd grade. But John Mighton's book "The Myth of Ability" speaks to a similar situation in math. He began working with kids at the 5th or 6th grade level who were really struggling with math, whose mastery was more than 2-3 years "behind." Eleven and twelve-year-olds who were still counting on their fingers to multiply 3 by 4, if they even understood what that was. What he did was work on fixing their sense of failure in order to reduce their anxiety and defeatism. How he did that is outlined in the book, but he was able to pretty much universally reverse their math failure, so that within a year they were working at or above grade level -- with just 20-30 minute sessions a couple of times a week. His hypothesis is that they simply weren't ready for some crucial part of basic math understanding at age 5 or 7, and by the time they were ready for it, maybe a few months or a year or so later, everyone else had moved on and the lagging kids were now mired in an anxiety-provoking morass of more advanced teaching.


All of which is to say that where one's early academic skills lie along the spectrum seems to have very strong predictive value in determining future academic success, but that effect is much more pronounced in a standard classroom environment than outside it. And that suggests to me that there's a strong nurture effect, in that schools, by virtue of their format and expectations, create a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy effect. Children who for whatever reason -- lack of developmental readiness, attentional immaturity, lack of exposure -- have fewer academic skills at those early ages, are seen by others and come to see themselves as less capable. And it's those beliefs that seal their fate. 



post #3 of 6

Great article! Thanks for sharing it!


I believe ability is the product of both nature and nurture. Most people accept this, right? And yet I feel like most people I know are fixated on nature. In my experience, people who are very intelligent (Westerners, at least) often fall into the trap of ignoring the importance of nurture and hard work. I remember in high school and middle school, many of the gifted kids would sit around bragging about how little they had studied for tests. "I only studied an hour!" "Oh yeah, well I only gave it about 15 minutes." What a ridiculous thing to brag about.


I think that when kids have "gifts" they quickly realize that they are able to do things well that others can't do. They never had to work hard to be able to do these things, so they quickly latch onto the idea that inborn ability is very important. Later when these same kids come across things they can't do well right away, they get frustrated or give up too easily. They haven't had enough experience struggling to master any intellectual skills. Many of the moms in this forum are probably former gifted kids, and can relate to this problem. So the important question for me is: how can we keep our kids from falling into the same trap?

post #4 of 6

I'm reading Out of the Labyrinth: Setting Mathematics Free right now: http://www.amazon.com/Out-Labyrinth-Setting-Mathematics-Free/dp/0195368525


and they do discuss math talent to a degree. The way math is typically taught in most schools prizes speed and getting it right. This book presents a different approach to mathematics that stresses thinking, collaboration and embracing mistakes (or rather, not being afraid to try because one way make a mistake).  The authors present the idea that mathematics is our lost native language.


I find it to be wonderfully refreshing. And I love that thinking is definitely something to be practiced. Unfortunately, early math education is pretty dull and so many students are turned off, or think they are bad at it.


I love that my kids have had montessori math and we try to keep math alive in our home. I do think that Montessori reduces the anxiety over doing it right, etc. because children are rarely corrected, but retaught the part of the material they are struggling with.... and also, kids are all over the place in a 1-3 grade class, and then 4-6th.... so there is no comparison between the children as in traditional school. Everyone is different and working on different things.

post #5 of 6

I read that article when it came out.  It really resonates with me, particularly as a professor.  I can see it from my perspective in a lot of my students, and I work to make sure that they can see it as well.  I spend a lot of time framing math ability as something to be worked towards and something that everyone in my class has the ability to achieve.  I make a point of making mistakes in front of them, and showing how I work through it.  I will often reflect to them my own experiences in learning math, and what it took for me to get through my hardest math class. 


However, anyone that's met my son is fairly certain there's a significant 'nature' portion to his math talent.  It's hard wired in him, and I do think that it does everyone a disservice that there is  not an innate component to math (as well as most) talent.  However, that doesn't mean to me that it we shouldn't have high expectations for all students, but instead adjust our teaching methods and pacing expectations to the individual.

post #6 of 6
With my DS6, it's a combination of nature/nurture. I've treated math with nearly the same importance as reading from a young age- the result is that he entered school with advanced math skills and knowledge.

That said, he learns math concepts quickly & there are just some thing he can "do" that are unusual for his age- rapid mental computation, solving some sizable word problems without writing anything down.
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