Mathematics is a subject that is perceived with different emotions by people. The world seems to be divided into math lovers and haters. There is a grey area also among these two divisions where people have interest in the subject but the learning difficulties make the path hurdled. In addition to having personal interest, several external factors such as a proper learning environment and access to schools also contribute to building mastery in math. When research was done to find why a person lacks reading, writing, or math skills, a lot of attributions were made to the brain composition and structure. Hence, asking the question, “Is being good at math genetic?” is quite valid. The answer is – partly yes.
Let’s explore some of the researches that tried to find the connection between genetics and being good at math. Not all attributed math genius to genetics. The influence of home environment and classroom environment was examined too.
Math genius and genetics – What researches say
A lot happens already outside the class that makes a child sit up and take notice when a math session starts in the class. This lot is actually the way a child’s brain works, his zeal to excel, and his capacity to decode numbers and numeric relationships. Certainly, this comfort emerges from the natural aptitude which is in-built. All a teacher does is nurture the skill and shape up a math genius. Hence, genetics and stimulation from external factors work together to make math possible for people who genuinely want to excel in this skill.
Michael A. Skeide conducted research recently in 2020 to study the contribution of genetics in being good at math. The research found that a gene ROBO1 determines the prenatal growth of the quantity processing region of the brain. The right parietal cortex’s volume may vary from child to child and those born with better volumes show an inclination towards math naturally. So, according to this research, math skill is a direct consequence of genetic disposition.
But, there is a flip side to the coin too!
Nurturing skills – a solution to natural disliking
Though the research above points at the gene-math skill relation, the fact that environment plays a major role in the development of math skills cannot be ignored. In families with poor socioeconomic status, the kids don’t have ample resources to continue schooling due to financial constraints. The zeal to learn withers away due to continuous non-exposure to studies. Consequently, math learning takes a backseat resulting in poor skills in the subject due to lack of nurturing of a natural trait or skill. A study by Shirin SR, has emphasized the impact of resource’s availability or socioeconomic status on educational achievements and highlights the need to expand resources’ reach to promote liking for learning math.
Home environment plays a major role in the development of math skills too. Let’s take an example of a Math prodigy, Terence Tao, who showed special skills in math from an early age. Parents took notice of the genius and worked to get him a specialized curriculum to complement his learning style and speed. It led him to set new records and the world now knows him as a math genius. This exceptional example shows how parental contribution and home environment play an instrumental role in developing excellence in math if the child shows germs for a skill from an early age.
However, not all are born with the capabilities of Terry Tao. Some develop an interest in math by practice and constant revisiting to topics. Another study highlighted the importance of the home environment in building math and spatial skills. The results from the study asserted the fact that parents’ attitude, involvement, and zeal to create a learning-centric environment play a major role in building math skills. Those parents suffering from math anxiety could not stop themselves from demonstrating this emotion, and it did pass on to the offspring, not genetic ally but through the behavioral way. Thus, developing an environment that fosters skills in math may help overcome natural shortcomings if the correct mode of instruction is adopted.
Game-based learning and practice to develop interest
According to a study, Taiwanese students usually show low-interest levels in learning math. This problem of lack of motivation was solved by introducing a game-based learning environment in the class. The students were driven to practice more to perform better in the game. They also made better attempts at learning when introduced to the math game. This finding indicates that the genetic composition is not the final determiner. A student may have the trait of working hard and trying harder to develop skills. The level of self-motivation, intellectual curiosity, and the zeal to be the best can also help children to become good at maths and emerge victorious despite the genetic lack.
Another external factor that shapes up the aptitude for math is the classroom environment. A classroom is the first point of public interaction with a child after home. The stimulating environment of the classroom can also help change the attitude towards math. In the research on Taiwanese students mentioned above, the students showed the development of positive attitude and better interest in learning when:
- They were appreciated for completing the task: The sense of self-fulfillment and satisfaction of completing the task and ensuing appreciation improved their appetite for math skills
- Task-based method gave them a purpose: Any activity including learning math skills requires making a course of action in mind. By providing the tasks to do, the students get an orientation on how to proceed and work towards finishing point.
- Encouragement provides positive reinforcement: The students tend to learn in a self-paced manner. To make the best of the study hour, they can be encouraged to concentrate better by giving rewards for participation and collaboration. Encouragement in the class works as a positive driver and students may develop a liking of learning irrespective of what the genes obligate.
In essence, the classroom environment can also contribute to developing math skills. The use of active learning methods levels up the students’ learning paces and helps them build proficiency in maths.
Does math make you anxious? Try these tips
Keeping the genetic factor in mind, the feelings of anxiety and low confidence may come naturally to a person having a low interest in math. It all starts with the inability to deal with numbers, and then, it compounds to math anxiety. The challenges of learning math manifest in myriad ways at different stages. These tips can help overcome math anxiety:
- More preparation, less anxiety: Prepare more in advance and practice a lot before the math class, it helps you feel confident.
- It is okay to be anxious: Normalize the feeling of anxiety; confronting every new skill may make anxious, don’t overstress on the feeling and take math as just another challenge. It is all up to us and in our minds how we allow any feeling to take over our psyche.
- Develop your way of solving a problem: Math problems can be solved with a variety of ways. Realize which method suits you the most and adopt it for faster results.
- Practice daily: Assign an hour daily to the math subject. Practice improves brain’s plasticity and makes it more receptive to math concepts.
- Learn with different ways: Only reading books and solving problems may drain you out after a time. Hence, include different learning solutions like manipulatives, math games or flashcards to spice up the learning time.
Math skills depend partly on genes that determine the structure of volume of the quantity processing part of the brain. But, this may not be the only determiner. Even if there is a problem in the math processing region, practice and self-motivation can help overcome this shortcoming. Home and classroom environments can be made more stimulating to allow learning zeal to take over the low interest in math. With the use of a collaborative approach and active learning methods, the results of efforts to gain math skills can be improved.
- MA, Wehrmann K, Emami Z, Kirsten H, Hartmann AM, Rujescu D, et al. (2020) Neurobiological origins of individual differences in mathematical ability. PLoS Biol 18(10): e3000871. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.3000871
- Kim S won, Cho H, Kim LY. Socioeconomic Status and Academic Outcomes in Developing Countries: A Meta-Analysis. Review of Educational Research. 2019;89(6):875-916. doi:10.3102/0034654319877155
- Hart, S. A., Ganley, C. M., & Purpura, D. J. (2016). Understanding the Home Math Environment and Its Role in Predicting Parent Report of Children’s Math Skills. PloS one, 11(12), e0168227. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0168227
- Yeh, C.Y.C., Cheng, H.N.H., Chen, ZH. et al. Enhancing achievement and interest in mathematics learning through Math-Island. RPTEL 14, 5 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1186/s41039-019-0100-9
I am Pratiksha Bhatt, Bachelor of Life Science, and Masters in Management Studies. I have done certification courses in early education counseling. I am a writer, a mother of a child with spelling difficulties which drove me to alternative resources of education like manipulatives and participatory activities. My areas of expertise are learning difficulties, alternative learning methods, and activity-based learning.