In his typically direct style, Seth Godin’s “Good at Math” purports to rebuke the common belief that if you’re not a math person then you’re destined to never be good at math. This is indeed a destructive attitude, and one we should work to dispel.
Unfortunately, Godin’s piece takes an all too familiar turn. If not genetics, Godin wonders, then what has prevented you from learning math?
If you’re not good at math, it’s not because of your genes. It’s because you haven’t had a math teacher who cared enough to teach you math. They’ve probably been teaching you to memorize formulas and to be good at math tests instead.
To Seth Godin, the answer is simple: bad teachers. And not just incompetent bad, but uncaring bad.
This claim is ridiculous.
First, most teachers care quite a lot about what they do, and whom they serve. Saying that students don’t learn because teachers don’t care is not only insulting, but it demonstrates a fundamental disconnect with the reality of who teachers are and what they do.
Second, there are many reasons why someone might not master math in school. Math is hard. Learning is hard. Teaching is hard. And even when teacher and student both care deeply, learning doesn’t always happen on schedule.
And if you want to criticize teachers for teaching students to be good at math tests, fine, but know that this is often exactly what teachers are told to do, directly or indirectly. This can be completely consistent with a teacher caring about their work and their students.
Lastly, there’s no point in telling people not to blame their genes if you’re just going to tell them to blame something else that’s largely out of their control. Blaming teachers won’t empower anyone to learn math; it just shifts the blame to a more convenient target. If anything, this argument reinforces the sense of powerlessness that struggling students often feel. At least Godin makes his attitude explicit: it’s far more common in today’s discourse to merely imply that teachers are an obstacle to improvement. Often, it’s simply an unstated assumption.
What would Seth Godin tell a struggling piano student who feels they simply aren’t a “music person”? Is this student not a good piano player because no teacher cared enough to really teach them piano? I suspect anyone who knows how hard it is to learn to play the piano would laugh at such a response. Is anyone laughing at this characterization of math teachers?
The work of a teacher is hard, and teachers work hard. And they care. Blaming teachers for all learning failures is simple-minded and impractical. No attempt to improve education will succeed if it is based on the premise that teachers are incompetent or uncaring, and that students are passive or powerless.
You can read Seth Godin’s piece here. And math educator David Coffey has written a nice response here.