By Sean McInerney, Queensland University of Technology

When you tell someone that you study mathematics, one of the most common responses is: “Oh, good on you! I could never be able to do that. I’ve never been good at maths.” Such a large percentage of the population associates the word “mathematics” with the phrase “the thing I’m bad at”.

This word association confuses and infuriates me. The thinking is so absolute, as though there’s no possibility of change. Just like any skill, there is some natural talent, but most of it is learnt or honed. In fact, mathematics lends itself to learning more than most other skills – everything is so well defined and logical! You can easily learn methods, theorems and rules. Sometimes, people struggle to grasp abstract concepts and critical thinking but, hey, not everything comes easily. These aspects of mathematics can still be learnt, if one is willing to put in the time.

Perhaps this is the crux of the problem: people are not willing to put in time to hone their mathematical abilities. A person who initially faces a hurdle in the obstacle course that is mathematical learning often doesn’t feel motivated to overcome it. If a person isn’t motivated to do an activity, I think it’s reasonable to say that it is easier to modify the activity than it is to alter the mindset of the person. As such, the onus is on how mathematics is presented, not on the student to naturally fall in love with mathematics. I believe an emphasis should be placed on making mathematics more enjoyable and appreciable, so that one’s mathematical journey continues throughout their life, instead of stopping abruptly at high school graduation.

The naturally arising question from this line of discussion is: “how is it possible to make maths more enjoyable?” I think an accurate albeit somewhat cryptic answer to this is: “the fun thing about mathematics is that it is not all about mathematics.” For me, the joy of mathematics comes in thinking outside the box and taking logical steps to achieve a goal; number crunching and rule reciting are just the tools often affiliated with doing these things. Though important to mathematics, abstract conceptualisation and critical thinking both transcend mathematics. They can be found in puzzles, video games and many more places. I believe if a person’s passion for mathematical thinking is carefully developed and nurtured, they are capable of being a great mathematician regardless of their natural talent. Passion of mathematics encourages practice and mastery of it, but encouraging practice without passion allows disconnection.

With all of this in mind, the next time I tell someone I study mathematics and they begin their dreaded drawl: “Oh, good on you! I could never be able to do that…” I hope to interject, “Yes, you could!” because there’s no limit on one’s potential in the vast realm of mathematical thinking.


Sean McInerney was one of the recipients of a 2016/17 AMSI Vacation Research Scholarship.

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