What Do Students Need to Learn Math? Competence, Curiosity and Commitment

Students in lecture

Nancy Weinstein

Yes, Virginia, there are math people.  

In our era that openly embraces the growth mindset, this notion that some are just “better at math” sounds as out of place as a reindeer at the beach.

But, hear me out.

There are people who naturally enjoy number puzzles, solving problems that require numerical solutions, and looking for patterns. By the way, there are others who are better at word puzzles, reading complex texts, and finding meaning in poetry.

Unlike the metaphoric truth about the fabled the man in the red suit, we have data from cognitive assessments that math clearly comes more naturally to some. The fairytale is that we all start from the same place. In fact, we are all different. When we acknowledge differences in abilities and proclivities, we can find better ways to motivate our less naturally engaged math students.

So what do students need to learn math?

Consider the 3 C’s that lead to success in almost any field: Competence, Curiosity, and Commitment.


It’s less elusive than you might think. Statistically speaking, most kids possess the competency to do math. Maybe calculus isn’t for everyone, but high school algebra is definitely within reach.


That’s tougher. As evidenced by our nation’s modest enrollment in higher level math classes, we haven’t yet figured out what works in large measure.

So what’s a parent to do?

As a “math person” myself, I will tell you my secret when it comes to my two children: I gave up on Curiosity.

Of course I try to engage their curiosity when I can link math skills to something my children find interesting, but now that they are out of grade school, I’ve cut my losses and re-doubled my efforts on the last C, Commitment.


When you think about it, Commitment is the fundamental skill that keeps us grounded when things get difficult, in school, relationships, and even athletic pursuits.

It is no surprise that research confirms the obvious: children learn most effectively and efficiently when they are committed to the process. The catch is that the Commitment MUST be intrinsic. Those extrinsic motivators, like grades and rewards, lose effectiveness relatively quickly.

So, while my daughters might lack my Curiosity for math, I’ve tried to instill an intrinsic Commitment to learn math. This strategy has been undeniably effective for my older daughter; as for the younger one, it’s too soon to tell. In both cases there is far less complaining and what seems like deeper understanding.

Here’s my no-nonsense approach for instilling Commitment. I tell them:

You are going to need to take math every year from now until you graduate from high school, so let’s get past the complaining. Our energy can be better spent elsewhere.

Math is cumulative, so you’re going to need to learn these skills sooner or later. The sooner you learn it, the easier it will be, so let’s learn it now.

Math through middle school is all about practical life skills. If you don’t learn it, people will be able to take advantage of you for the rest of your life.  If you don’t believe me, consider these familiar examples:

  • How much tip to leave
  • How to divide up the restaurant check among friends (or any other bill)
  • How to adjust a recipe
  • How much change you should have received
  • What is the final sale price (yes, you must take into account the fine print)
  • How much down payment you need to make on a house and how to finance it
  • How much you need to save/can spend to pay your bills now and for the next 50 years
  • How to negotiate your salary and benefits

Just the same way you need to read, you need to do math for your basic overall survival. There are plenty of times when a calculator will not give you the solution.

You don’t ever need to take calculus. As a former engineer with four semesters of college calculus behind me, I can tell you it’s a colossal waste of time if you aren’t going into a field that requires it. Yes, it develops great analytical skills, but so do lots of other classes. My recommendation, take statistics instead. You will use it throughout your life. And speaking of calculus, if the Ivy League and their brethren haven’t yet accepted that every talented student doesn’t need to take AP Calculus, it might be the time for some self-reflection in their admissions departments.

I don’t care if you take math in college. Really? Really! Everything you need to know for daily math life and in most careers, you can learn in high school. Of course, if you choose a career path that requires you to take math classes, I will applaud it. But it is not a requirement.

So, yes, Virginia, there are math people and for everyone else, with the right commitment, there is an end in sight.


This blog is part of our Smart Parents blog series and book, Smart Parents: Parenting for Powerful Learning in partnership with The Nellie Mae Education Foundation. For more information, please see our Smart Parents: Parenting for Powerful Learning page and other blogs in the series:


 Weinstein is the founder & CEO of Mindprint Learning. Follow Nancy on Twitter @MindprintLearn.

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1 Comment

Christopher Sexton

This article provides a refreshing antidote to the nature/nurture debate which sometimes derails discussion about math education. Students come to mathematics with various levels of skill for a variety of reasons, and not every one of them will prove capable of earning a Fields Medal. And yet almost all of high school mathematics is sufficiently accessible to be mastered by almost all students. As teachers we must ignite their natural curiosity and help them make a sustained effort. And who knows—even though high school math isn’t rocket science it could help you get a job at NASA one day!


Bonnie Lathram

Thanks Christopher for your comments. Love that we are all thinking about what will make math meaningful for all kids. We certainly aren't all going to get advanced degrees in math however we can become more "quantitatively aware." Thanks for reading and for commenting!

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