I have been tutoring children in maths and English for seven years. During this time, I have witnessed countless tears and the same heartbreaking speech: “I’m dumb! I don’t get it!”
The reason why this devastates me so much is because I was that child ten years ago. The only difference is, I didn’t have a teacher to tell me that it’s okay not to be a genius.
When I was 14, I was in Advanced Maths, meaning that we were doing Year 11 work in Year 9. I came home most nights crying because I couldn’t understand it. What made it worse were the teachers who would give the monotonous, somewhat threatening message: “You’ll never get anywhere in life if you’re not good at maths.”
In kindergarten, they brought in a “special guest speaker”. This lovely gentleman told us if you fail maths, you fail life. He came in every year, for several years. It was like watching a bad re-run on television.
In Year 2, a mathematician asked us to pick a job, any job. He guaranteed we would use maths in every job mentioned. Irritated, chubby, 7 year old me threw my hand up and asked; “What if I want to be a journalist?”
The man was stunned. He was silent for an uncomfortable length of time whilst he wracked his brain, presumably working out some maths equation that would help answer the cocky child.
“Well,” he cleared his throat. “You need to count all of the money that you make.”
I had an answer. “I would hire an accountant to do that. Besides, you don’t make much money as a writer.”
The children laughed, my teacher gasped and the guest speaker awkwardly moved on to the next “job that used maths”.
I’m not saying that we don’t need maths. Everyone needs to know the basics, such as your timetables and how to add. But I worked in law for 2 years and even then, I barely used numbers, even though I was doing all of the accounting. The programs we used at work on the computer worked out all of the tricky equations for us. I just had to put in the numbers and suddenly, I would know how costly the water bill was over a period of three months.
So when any of my students lament they are dumb, I tell them about an interesting study. There are 9 Types of Intelligence.
1. Naturalist Intelligence (“Nature Smart”)
2. Musical Intelligence (“Musical Smart”)
3. Logical-Mathematical Intelligence (Number/Reasoning Smart)
4. Existential Intelligence (“Spiritually Smart”)
5. Interpersonal Intelligence (“People Smart”)
6. Bodily-Kinaesthetic Intelligence (“Body Smart”)
7. Linguistic Intelligence (Word Smart)
8. Intra-personal Intelligence (“Self Smart”)
9. Spatial Intelligence (“Picture Smart”)
No one is dumb. We’re all just a different kind of smart.
A ten year old needs to understand motivation, responsibility and commitment. But when they tell me they want to be a journalist and hate algebra, I don’t reprimand them for it.
I explain that the only reason I am using maths as an adult is because I’m helping them. Otherwise, I haven’t used fractions since High School. Amazingly, this gives them hope. And it makes them actually do the work. It’s because they know that maths isn’t the be all and end all. They’re not fighting with their mind, reputation or what’s expected of them anymore — and that’s half the battle. We’re more afraid of disappointing others than disappointing ourselves.
I tell them that algebra might be unpleasant, but they just need to get through it until the next unpleasant subject. They smile, wipe their eyes and get on with their work; because guess what? They’ve been told that they’re not dumb failures.
Reading is different. I had children who couldn’t read and told me how much they hated it. I couldn’t understand why. So, I asked if they imagine pictures when they’re reading. They said no. When I said maybe they should try envisioning what is happening in their mind, they would be able to see the story come to life, just like a movie but with their own actors and sets.
Five years later, my student rushed towards me and hugged me. He said if it wasn’t for me, he wouldn’t be an avid reader now and how I helped fuel his imagination and even get a job.
If you’re actually going to use what you learn in life, you might as well find a way to enjoy it.
Education is important, but if you’re not a mechanic, you’re not a mechanic. If you’re not a maths whizz, you’re not a maths whizz. If you say “brung” instead of “brought”, then Tyrolin will have a conniption.
I dropped maths in year 12. I’m not ashamed of that. I was in the top ten of every other class. I’m proud of that. I’m 22 now and I am a qualified paralegal, an AIMO songwriting nominee, a published author and journalist amongst other achievements. I haven’t failed at life, despite the fact I failed a maths exam when I was 16.
We all remember how hard it was to grow up. The last thing children need to hear is how they’re a failure if they don’t understand cos, sin and tan.
Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish on its ability to climb a tree, it will spend its whole life thinking it’s dumb.