Did No One Care About Seth Godin?

Published by MrHonner on

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.

Categories: Teaching


Mike T · October 15, 2014 at 7:36 pm


Good response, but I have a minor quibble.

Learning to play the piano is almost always an option undertaken on someone’s part, not a requirement like math. Many, many people stop playing piano because of exactly what you dispute – they aren’t “music people”. They don’t like the monotony of practice, or they don’t enjoy music but are learning because they’re being forced, or, most often, they just lose interest in playing altogether. And there are people in the world who are genuinely not musical – there are people for whom no amount of lessons, whether they love music or no, will never become Lang Lang. Or even Great-Aunt Martha, who can carry a tune on the piano well enough for a family sing-a-long.

What’s nice about learning the piano is that if you don’t like it, you can quit. We have no equivalent option for math.


    MrHonner · October 15, 2014 at 9:04 pm

    I know, the comparison to music is always tricky. But I don’t think the mandatory nature of mathematics education is relevant to what Godin is saying, though, nor is it to my response.

    That being said, I know lots of people for whom music training was compulsory. And I’ve known lots of competent piano players who are not what I’d consider “music people”. And I’m pretty sure just about anyone could achieve a functional level of piano competency if they worked hard enough.

      Mike T · October 15, 2014 at 10:13 pm

      I actually think the mandatory nature of math ed IS relevant, even if that’s not obvious to Godin. He clearly seems to think that it’s just bad teaching that keeps students “down”, and that somehow (magically?) replacing bad with good will fix things – and he does this without specifying what is “bad” vs “good” beyond a soundbite. But if you’re going to require EVERYONE to “learn math” to some degree (equivalent to your piano competency reference), then you need everyone to have highly competent math teachers, from their earliest days of schooling, in order to get everyone to that “piano-competent” level. I wonder: do we have that now?

Kenneth Tilton · October 16, 2014 at 5:22 am

“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. ”

Exactly. The most important variable in the learning equation is the learner, but today’s reformers (including Common Core) just want to talk about better teaching. Better teaching that gets to the why as well as the how is a really good idea and will not change a thing unless the learner takes ownership of their learning.

Unfortunately, Seth… well, you said it pretty well: “If anything, this argument reinforces the sense of powerlessness that struggling students often feel.”

Education needs to be better, but a model of the student as passive recipient of teacher/school prescriptions is the first thing to fix (throw out).

    MrHonner · October 16, 2014 at 6:51 am

    Yes, apart from the offense to teachers, what struck me most here is the perpetuation of the idea of the student as a passive consumer. Godin’s background is in marketing, so it makes sense that he sees things that way.

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