What Are “Math People” and “Language People”?

In my experience, more often than not, high school students buy in to the idea that one is generally either a “math person” or a “language person”. This dichotomy has been drawn in many ways: math vs. language, science vs. art, STEM vs. humanities, etc. The origins are understandable; people simply tend to be better at some things and worse at others. Sometimes those things happen to be math or science or language arts or reading or any other combination of academic subjects. What troubles me, however, is the way in which this harmless observation mutates over the course of a student’s academic career into what can only be labeled a conviction.

Don’t get me wrong – there are certainly students for whom “I am just not an x person” is undoubtedly true. But the percentage of students for whom that statement is true is a mere fraction of the overall number of students who espouse those kinds of claims.

I come to discover that my students hold these opinions of themselves because I always ask a similar set of questions during my first encounter with a new student. These are questions you can probably guess, questions about their favorite and least favorite subjects, hobbies, aspirations, fears, etc. Usually, by the time a student comes to me for tutoring, they have it ingrained in their worldview that they are simply not an “x person” and it comes across quite clearly in their answers to my questions.

You can also probably guess that I don’t like this outlook. I make every effort to erase that mindset from my students when I feel it is an inappropriate mindset to hold and, over time, I have found that there are good and bad ways to approach my goal. Challenging the student’s belief outright is often ineffective because, from the student’s perspective, it amounts to a relative stranger attempting to discount their years of experience in academics. So, on top of being ineffective, it runs the risk of starting the tutoring on a confrontational note.

It’s All About The Approach

An excellent example of how I approach these kinds of students is the way I teach grammar to “math people”. When I ask “math people” why they don’t like reading and writing, their answers are often reducible to something about those subjects being too subjective, whereas math is totally objective. Everyone can agree that math (at least at the high school and undergraduate levels) is pretty much all about memorizing rules, recognizing the situations where the rules apply, and then correctly applying the rules. For instance, you memorize the quadratic formula, learn to recognize the problems that require the quadratic formula, and then you practice using the formula correctly. I teach grammar to “math people” in the same way to make it less daunting.

Grammar, like math, is about memorizing rules, recognizing the situations where the rules apply, and then correctly applying the rules. For example, you memorize the one rule governing semi-colon usage, learn to recognize where semi-colons are required, and then you practice using semi-colons correctly. The difference is that for a “math person” grammar is even easier than math. But why? Aren’t “math people” necessarily the best at math? They wouldn’t be “math people” otherwise, right?

Let’s go back to my simple breakdown of high school math. You might feel like I’ve oversimplified what math is about. After all, those three steps don’t sound too tough and I’m sure most people can remember math giving them at least a bit of trouble in high school or college. What makes math challenging is that the situations are so dynamic. There are an endless number of ways the SAT could ask you a question about quadratic polynomials and in many of those circumstances it won’t even be obvious that they’re testing you on quadratics.

Grammar, however, is not nearly as dynamic and there are fewer rules and variations of those rules. There should never be confusion about whether or not a question is testing semi-colons: if it is, there will be a semi-colon in the question or in the answer! When I show “math people” how similar grammar is to math, they are typically surprised because nobody has taught them grammar in that style. But when I explain how and why grammar is not only like math but easier in many ways, their surprise turns into a mix of skepticism and excitement. Their skeptical side thinks “How could it possibly be that a subject which I have regarded for so long as “too subjective” turned out to be so compatible with the way I like to think?” On the other hand, their excited side thinks “If grammar really is like this, I can do it and it won’t even be that hard!”

Good teaching isn’t just about being able to explain complicated ideas. Sometimes it isn’t the particularly complex concepts that give students trouble. Similarly, it isn’t just about being able to explain something well – there are many ways to explain something well. Sometimes it’s the perspective of the explanation that gives students trouble. Understanding how the student thinks allows a good teacher to make necessary judgments about why a student doesn’t understand, not just what they don’t understand, and consequently adjust how they teach to better fit the way the student learns. As a teacher, there is no better feeling than helping a student comprehend that they are capable of more than they gave themselves credit for – regardless of whether or not they come to love the subject itself.

At Mindspire, this is the kind of good teaching we believe in. We challenge our students to overcome their academic and test-taking fears in ways that don’t put pressure on them. Our tutors are there every step of the way to ensure that students have a support they can lean on as they work towards improving themselves.