Strangled by Conventional Thinking

Over the summer I was speaking with another parent about my son, Phoenix, and his particular musical ability. It was a conversation that exposed how limited I am by my adherence to my conventional thinking.

The other parent, who said he had a special interest in music said, “I suppose he is good at Maths as well, there is often a connection”.

I responded by saying, “Yes, he is one of those people that just gets it, he finds Maths so easy”.

I had exposed my belief that Maths is an inherent ability. I didn’t really think much of this until I read some research recently. In the US and the UK there is a pervasive belief, including many educators, that some children have a natural inclination and ability in Maths and some do not. Naturally this societal belief trickles down to the children themselves.


There is a stereotype, sometimes used with a mildly racist connotation that Asians are very good at Maths.


The truth, based on evidence, is that Asians are very good at Maths. Shanghai has some of the highest performing schools in the world in Mathematical ability. China, South Korea, Singapore, Japan all rank very highly when children are assessed for Mathematical ability. The majority of countries ranked in the top ten are Asian.

The USA and UK are typically ranked between 30th and 40th in the world.


So are Asians better at Maths?

The evidence would suggest they are.

However it could be that the real difference between the UK, the USA and Asia is not an ‘inherent ability’ it is that in Asia there is no such belief that there is inherent ability. The pervasive belief in Asia is that Maths, like language, is an ability that almost all children will naturally develop, and given the appropriate support will develop further.

Children do not believe that some of their peers have an inherent ability that they themselves may not have.

Teachers and the educational establishment are less likely to favour higher performers for their, ‘natural ability’.

All of this leads to a much higher level of performance for all children.


I have always believed that some children had an inherent ability, a head for maths, and some didn’t. I learned that belief when I was at school. Until this week I had never come across an alternative view. I am not aware that in general conversation that I have come across an opposing view. I have certainly come across views that all children should be given a chance, but the received wisdom remained the same.

I was being strangled by conventional thinking. Like yesterday when the laces in my shoes did not match, causing me to hesitate about wearing them.

Sometimes I can surface self-judgements and prejudices easily myself, however today it became clear to me that sometimes I need a whole new powerful context to challenge my global beliefs.

How are you being strangled by conventional thinking? Who will help you uncover your blindspots?

PS I searched for an image to go with this piece. I picked the one I liked and what is it titled?

‘Scary Math’!


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