Sunday, September 25, 2011

Math and MBTI Psychological Type


Happy Math Storytelling Day!  This is an event in honor of my dear friend, Maria Droujkova of Natural Math, whose birthday is it today.  The idea is that we share our stories about math with each other.

So my story involves math education and psychological type as measured by the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI).  This past winter, I taught an online class through P2PU on the Psychology of Math Learning.  The idea of the class was to look at various psychological theories, including MBTI personality type theory, to see if it would give us insight on why math can be such a struggle to so many learners.  (For more details on the class, you can read my original blog post about it).

The structure of the class was that each week, we would take an online test about one of these theories, then post our "score," such as our MBTI type, which in my case is ENFP (Extravert, iNtuitive, Feeling, Perceiving).  Then we would reflect on our experience learning math, and see if we noticed any ways that our test results might have helped or hindered our math education.

The class didn't work out quite like I planned, because even though this approach was explained in all the class descriptions, and had a couple dozen people sign up, the only students who ever posted their scores or their reflections on the theory and their math experience were the Extraverts!  So, we ended up with a skewed sample of respondents.  But we Extraverts had a great time talking about things between ourselves.

However, it was an eye-opening revelation for me.  Math had always been my worst subject at school; worst NOT in the sense of grades, since I was the kind of student who would do whatever I needed to do to get an A, but in the sense that I knew I didn't really understand the answers I was regurgitating back on my graded work.  And that wasn't usually the case for me--generally, I understood the concepts behind all my other subjects.  So I never liked math, thought I wasn't good at math, and never took any academic math classes past my required Algebra II/Trig in my junior year of high school.

But by looking at MBTI, I could see at least part of the reason why.  Because the way I was taught math was EXACTLY opposite to my personality style.
  • Math was taught as a completely I (Intravert) subject.  You stayed in your own seat, stuck to your own paper, came up with your own answers.  Any working together on a problem wasn't collaboration, it was cheating.  Even in Science, we at least had lab partners when we worked on experiments, and did lots of group projects in the Arts and Humanities (my favorite subjects).  But in math, I don't ever remember working with another student.
  • Math was taught as a million different discrete problems that built up, bit by bit, to larger concepts--which is a very S (Sensing) approach.  Everything had an order and a sequence that eventually led to a comprehensive explanation of the subject.  But N (iNtuition) people like to see the big picture first, so that they understand why they are doing all the individual problems.  N people also usually don't fare very well in the high-sequenced, "show all steps of your work" approach that was used in my academic math classes.
  • Why subject could possible be more T (Thinking) than math?  What does F (Feeling) have to do with whether 2 plus 2 adds up to 4, or that the area of the circle is Pi times the radius squared?  I was presented math as a completely abstract, logical, impersonal subject, which isn't something that we emotional, subjective, relationship-oriented F people particularly like.
  • Finally, I was taught math as a very black/white, right/wrong, only one right answer kind of way, which is what MBTI calls J (Judging).  P (Perceiving) people like open-ended answers, multiple possibilities, and options.  But I was never given any of those shades of gray in my math classes.
Let me make two things clear.  First, I'm not saying that any of those approaches are "bad" or "wrong."  The whole basis of MBTI is these different preferences, which we are born with, are not better or worse than each other.  They are just different.  I doubt I had bad math classes, because I went to good schools and I'm sure I had good math teachers.  That was just how math was taught in those days.  And I'm sure that approach works brilliantly for some people--just not for me and my personality style.

Secondly, I now know that math doesn't have to be that way.  Math education has come a long way since then, and there are many more ways that math is presented these days in schools.  I am also so thankful that I met Maria, and through her, all the people on the Natural Math loop who have shown me math as a rainbow, not just a black and white subject.  For example, Math Mama Sue Van Hatten just recently had a blog post about how her students work together in groups.  The wonderful math-rich puzzles presented by Math Pickle encourage students to find many answers to the same problem.  Maria is constantly presenting math as fun, and as beautiful, and as creative, and as a vehicle for individual expression.  And I could go on and on about the wonderful new math educators who are diversifying the experience of this important field.

So my story has a happy ending.  Maria and others have helped me to "grow new math eyes" so I can appreciate math in a way that works for my personality.  But I think my story also has a moral, which is that math instruction (and all instruction, really) needs to meet the individual's personality and style, at least to some extent.  If you are a teacher or a parent or a homeschooler (some of my readers are all three), and your math teaching isn't working, consider the personality of the student who is having problems.  It is easy for us to get so caught up in our own MBTI preferences that we don't even notice that we are only giving open-ended exploratory problems to students who do better with more structure, or refuse to even consider a response from our creative thinkers that is different than the one in the answer key, which we find so reassuring.

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