# The Myth of the Math Gene

Every child has the math gene. Professor Carrie Cutler is helping them find it.

# The Myth of the Math Gene

Every child has the math gene. Professor Carrie Cutler is helping them find it.

By Sheela Clary

Anyone can be a math person. That’s a fundamental conviction for Carrie Cutler, a University of Houston clinical assistant professor and researcher. By nudging her student teachers away from old-school worksheets and toward engaging curricula tied to real-world scenarios and materials, Cutler’s work aims to shift the STEM student’s mindset from “I can’t, it’s too hard ” to “I can, I just have to work harder. ” It’s what she calls being “math positive."

We talked to Cutler to learn more about her ideas on math education, its relationship to creativity and how she encourages students (and educators) to embrace a math-positive mindset.

WHAT WAS YOUR FAVORITE SUBJECT IN SCHOOL?

Oh, music for sure. I thought I was going to be a star.

I’M CURIOUS ABOUT THE INTERPLAY BETWEEN MATH AND MUSIC.

There’s lots that music and math have in common. Music notes are divided into fractions, also patterns. Think about how your favorite song has a predictable pattern, that you’re able to sing along because you recognize the pattern. That’s algebraic reasoning. Lots of overlaps.

YOU HAVE SOME FUN STEM ACTIVITIES AND RESOURCES ON YOUR WEBSITE. DO YOU GET TO BE HANDS-ON WITH THE LITTLE ONES?

I used to be, but those are now things I do with my pre-service teachers: teach them how to do the activity, so that they can turn around and do them with their classes.

## “A math-positive person thinks outside the box, experiments, readjusts and understands that learning is iterative.”

## “A math-positive person thinks outside the box, experiments, readjusts and understands that learning is iterative.”

WHAT ACTIVITY HAS BEEN MOST EFFECTIVE IN ENGAGING KIDS?

The one most popular with kids is called straw triangles, where kids use playdough and pieces of drinking straws. They cut straws different lengths to make lots of different triangles. At first, they have a bunch of equilateral triangles, then they realize, “There’s scissors. What should I do with them?” They start cutting the straws. When they’re laid out on the table, they think, “I never knew a triangle could look so different and still be a triangle.”

I’M CURIOUS WHAT A “MATH-NEGATIVE ” MINDSET IS.

You hardly ever hear somebody say, “Oh, I just never really could learn to read.” That’s just not socially acceptable. But in math, we somehow have permission to say that to ourselves, to one another and even to children: “Oh, don’t worry about it. You’re really more of a creative person.” I think that sends such a destructive message, especially when kids are young — and they can definitely learn mathematics. They just have to work at it.

SO, A MATH-POSITIVE MINDSET INCLUDES PERSEVERANCE.

That’s a big part of it. We give ourselves an idea that if something’s hard, we must not be good at it. I mean, athletes don’t hop out of the crib and immediately become great at their sport. We value practice. So why isn’t math valued the same way? A math-positive person thinks outside the box, experiments, readjusts and understands that learning is iterative.

CAN YOU THINK OF A STUDENT WHO HAD MATH-NEGATIVE MINDSET, FOLLOWED BY AN “AHA! ” MOMENT?

Oh my gosh, I’m so glad you asked that! I just found a lovely email from a student teacher of mine. She said something like, “I’ve been trying to exhibit a math-positive mindset with my students, hoping that my modeling takes hold. I hear them say things like, ‘I don’t get it’ and ‘This is too hard.’ But today one of the boys said, ‘I’m not giving up because I know if I keep trying it, I’ll eventually get it.’” She sent me that email to say that she felt like she was starting to make a difference in this particular child’s life. And to me, that just felt so rewarding. If my students can turn around and make a difference in 150 kids’ lives, that’s just amazing to me.

HOW DO YOU DEFINE A GOOD MATH TEACHER?

A good math teacher believes that everyone is a math person. They don’t have that misconception that if you don’t have the math gene, you’re never going to figure it out. They have an attitude of pushing forward when things are difficult and using mistakes as opportunities to learn.

I’M WONDERING IF YOU FOUND YOURSELF SHIFTING GEARS DURING THE PANDEMIC TO ADVISE PARENTS.

Yes, I’ve definitely shifted my consulting with schools and faculties to also helping parents navigate online learning. That’s the impetus for the website. Sometimes parents are afraid to ask teachers for clarification and they get a negative feeling about math, because the homework that kids bring home looks different.

HOW IS IT DIFFERENT?

I don’t remember doing anything hands-on to learn math as a child. I certainly never did any geometry or algebra. But it’s typical of the curriculum today to have a broader view of math beyond computation. So, when kids bring home an assignment that has more words than they expect, it can be intimidating. Even something as simple as subtraction with two-digit numbers. When we were in school, we used terms like “borrowing” and “carrying.” Those have been replaced with words that make more sense, like “regrouping.”

WHAT ARE YOUR WORDS OF WISDOM FOR PARENTS HOPING TO INSTILL SKILLS LIKE PATIENCE AND CREATIVITY?

You can model those attitudes in your self-talk and behaviors around the home. If something doesn’t get worked out in the kitchen, do you chuck the whole thing or do you try to make the best of it? Do you exhibit patience and determination to work things out at work? I also think we need to be mindful of the things we say to kids surrounding math itself. The language that we use can reinforce that everybody is a math person. I think that can be really powerful for propelling kids through difficult times.

WHAT’S GIVING YOUR STUDENTS HOPE?

The teachers I’m preparing at UH are good thinkers. They’re flexible, nimble, willing to try new things and they don’t give up easily. They’re lifelong learners. They monitor and adjust their teaching for new trends. We’re preparing kids for a future career space that we can’t imagine, so we need to teach them to solve problems that have not yet been solved. Kids are individuals. They’re all on their own journey and trajectory for learning. And I think that my students, my pre-service teachers, are optimistic that they can help all kids move forward on that journey. Maybe everybody in the classroom isn’t at the same milepost marker, but all kids can continually grow.

**Carrie Cutler is a clinical assistant professor of elementary education at the University of Houston. Her recent research focuses on improving classroom instruction through integrated instruction such as using picture books in mathematics and pre-K STEM learning. She consults for curriculum builders and has been interviewed on a number of podcasts and radio shows, including NPR and “The Lisa Show.“**