“I can’t do math, either.” – a parent

Nothing burns me more than those words. Seriously, would that same parent ever admit, “I can’t read, either”? Of course, not. As a society, we seem to accept a self-proclaimed inability to “do math” as a badge of honor – something to wear with pride. Often, the parent making that statement runs a business. Does that mean that running a business does not require math? Of course not. So where is the disconnect? Maybe the parent is intimidated by high school math teachers. Maybe that parent thinks that “doing math” means “doing algebra” or “doing geometry” or whatever it was he did in high school.

What to do in that situation? First, smile. Then, take a breath. Then ask a few questions like

  • What kind of math do you use in your daily life?
  • Do you mean that you struggled in high school? What do you think contributed to your struggle?
  • What do you think it means to “do math”?

Usually, opening the lines of communication leads to understanding. The parent’s claim, “I can’t do math, either” could mean any number of things:

  • I didn’t get good grades in my high school math classes
  • I can’t help my child with her homework
  • I struggled with algebra (or some other topic)

Through conversation, I often help the parent understand that he probably can “do math” and “does math” every day. Conversation also allows me to explain that while we are teaching some specific skills and content, we also teach communication, collaboration, reasoning, and problem solving. And those are skills that kids can take with them anywhere – and do math.


Filed under teaching

4 responses to ““I can’t do math, either.” – a parent

  1. Why does math take the brunt of these comments? I mean, I get that it’s considered harder than most other high school subjects. But why? Is it cause it’s abstract? Because of the way it’s been taught? I never did find a solution but find myself much happer teaching physics because at least parents don’t act proud if they can’t do physics. Your post is Truth with a capital T. Keep preachin’ it!

  2. Pingback: New Bloggers to Check Out « Megan Hayes-Golding

  3. Stephanie

    Hi, Pamela,

    Whenever I hear the phrase “I can’t do math” in whatever form I tell them the tale of when I was in grad school and how I SUCKED at algebra. My lab partner was an algebra whiz. In turn, I’m a geometry/spatial whiz (or so my lab partner said, lol). I would describe a pattern and he would write the algebra. He told me he had no clue how I was able to manipulate 3D space in my head and in turn I had no clue how he came up with the algebra for it. Together we made an awesome team. My point is that there are many, many different types of math and no one can possibly be bad at all of it…it’s just finding your niche — and math is not all about math and numbers (if it were, we’d all be accountants!).

    I came across your blog via David Wees, and as a fellow mathematics educator I thought you might be able to help in spreading the word about an educational TV show for preteens about math that we’re putting together. “The Number Hunter” is a cross between Bill Nye The Science Guy and The Crocodile Hunter — bringing math to children in an innovative, adventurous way. I’d really appreciate your help in getting the word out about the project.

    I studied math education at Jacksonville University and the University of Florida. It became clear to me during my studies why we’re failing at teaching kids math. We’re teaching it all wrong! Bill Nye taught kids that science is FUN. He showed them the EXPLOSIONS first and then the kids went to school to learn WHY things exploded. Kids learn about dinosaurs and amoeba and weird ocean life to make them go “wow”. But what about math? You probably remember the dreaded worksheets. Ugh.

    I’m sure you know math is much more exciting than people think. Fractal Geometry was used to create “Star Wars” backdrops, binary code was invented in Africa, The Great Pyramids and The Mona Lisa, wouldn’t exist without geometry.
    Our concept is to create an exciting, web-based TV show that’s both fun and educational.

    If you could consider posting about the project on your blog, I’d very much appreciate it. Also, if you’d be interested in link exchanging (either on The Number Hunter site, which is in development, or on StatisticsHowTo.com which is a well-established site with 300,000 page views a month) please shoot me an email. We’re also always looking for input and ideas from other math educators!

    Thanks in advance for your help,


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