Lazy, crazy mathematicians and other myths we need to bust

By Vesife Hatisaru

Creating opportunities for students to develop ‘healthy’ images of mathematicians and mathematics is paramount. The images of mathematics or mathematicians that students hold have a huge impact on their learning outcomes. For example, the perceived negative image of mathematicians by students could result in unhappiness in mathematics classrooms or a loathing of mathematics (Hatisaru & Murphy, 2019). 

Why is it important? Maths matters because it impacts life quality, income and national development.

Since 2009, I have aimed to understand school students’ images of mathematics and mathematicians (Hatisaru, 2020). What views do they have about mathematicians and their work? What are the connections between students’ views about mathematicians and their attitudes towards mathematics? What views do they have about the needs for mathematics? How do they perceive their mathematics classroom?

Students’ images of mathematicians and mathematics are developed throughout years and impacted by several different factors. From the investigations of myself and others it is clear that experiences in mathematics classrooms contribute to students’ perceptions. Other factors include representations in media and popular culture, and family or society related factors. 

For example, Wilson and Latterell (2001) found that in movies, literature, comics, and music mathematicians are portrayed as insane,  socially inept. Darragh (2018) too.

Ucar et al. (2010) examined the image of mathematicians held by a group of 19 elementary school students and observed that the students described mathematicians as ‘unsocial, lonely, angry, quiet who always work with numbers’. (p. 131).

Picker and Berry (2000) introduce a cycle of the perpetuation of stereotypical images of mathematics and mathematicians (for example ‘mathematicians are weird’ or ‘mathematicians are asocial people’). According to them, this cycle begins with exposition of different cultural and societal stereotypes via TV, cartoons, books, other media, also via peers and adults through negative repeating phrases. 

Among students there is a dominant male perception of mathematicians (e.g., Aguilar et al. 2016;  Picker & Berry 2000). In Picker and Berry’s study, which included participants from 5 different countries, students sometimes associated negative or aggressive behaviours to mathematicians such as being large authority figures, crazy men, or having some special power.

Darragh (2018) examined 59 young adult fiction books to identify the depiction of school mathematics in them. Mathematics was more commonly portrayedto be “nightmarish; inherently difficult; something to be avoided: …” 

“Mathematics teachers in particular bore the brunt of negative portrayals and were depicted as ridiculous, sinister, insane, and even dispensable; in short, they were positioned as villains.”

Students then meet teachers who lack awareness of stereotypes of mathematics and mathematicians, and sometimes they themselves hold certain stereotypes. Through teachers and the media, students are affected by certain attitudes such as ‘they must be quick at mathematics to be good at it’, or ‘mathematicians are a privileged group who have the special ability to do mathematics’. These messages and others, according to Picker and Berry, contribute to the formulation of the perceptions of mathematics and mathematicians in students’ minds. Jo Boaler, too, indicates that in her writings on the (important) role of holding a Growth Mindset in mathematics.

Over time, Picker and Berry continue, students develop attitudes and belief systems towards mathematics and mathematicians that may lead to generalisations or stereotypes. The cycle completes with the exchanging of students’ views with others. As a part of society, each student now contributes to others’ images of mathematicians and mathematics.

Given that some students hold negative images of mathematicians and mathematics, and their images are impacted by school-related factors, it is important that school educators are aware of student images. 

For about four years now, in my interactions with schoolteachers in several different conferences, workshops, and professional learning events, I have noticed that some teachers use the phrase ‘Since mathematicians are lazy …’ often when they introduce some ‘short-cut’ methods or procedures to their students. Once, for example, the context was solving the problem: 27 + 28 + 13 = ? The teacher’s language practice was: ‘Since mathematicians are lazy, they add 27 to 13 first, which is 40, and then add 28 which gives 68’. 

In fact, the mathematical behaviour behind this solution is ‘efficiency’ (Cirillon & Eisenmann, 2011) rather than ‘laziness’. The mentioned ‘lazy mathematicians’ know that, according to the associative property, 27 + 28 + 13 = (27 + 28) + 13 = (27 + 13) + 28. In this case, adding 27 to 13 first is a lot easier than adding 27 to 28 as 7 and 3 makes 10. 

Using this property for solving a problem such as 138 + 44 + 12 + 6 = ? makes the calculations even easier: adding 138 to 12 gives 150, and adding 44 to 6 gives 50. The sum of 150 and 50 is 200. Once again, the reason for mathematicians’ desire to use these approaches is not ‘laziness’ but their desire for ‘efficiency’. They also see mathematics as a connected body of knowledge. That is, they use the same property in solving algebra problems (e.g., 17x + 21y + 43x + 19y = (17x + 43x) + (21y + 19y) = 60x + 40y).

In the short term, ‘mathematicians are lazy’ types of messages may appeal to students, but in the long term, they may contribute to the development of (negative) stereotypical images of mathematicians in students. It may prevent students from ‘seeing’ the reasons behind mathematical procedures, and the beauty and connectedness in mathematical ideas. Furthermore, they are morally wrong: Are mathematicians really ‘lazy’? Have we met all mathematicians? Have we measured their relevant attitudes? Were they found to be ‘lazy’ based on those measurements?

While we cannot control messages in the media or popular culture, as also Cirillon and Eisenmann tell us, we could carry and share best messages with our students. My suggestion to schoolteachers, and all other actors in mathematics education including parents and family members, is that we use alternative phrases. Why not use: ‘Since mathematicians are creative …’, ‘Since mathematicians seek to find alternative approaches …’, or ‘Since mathematicians desire to use more efficient ways …’.

These messages are not only more representative and morally more appropriate, but they also have more value in developing images of mathematicians and mathematics in students that are closer to the reality. Moreover, they could contribute to establishing ‘healthier’ relationships between students and mathematicians and mathematics.

Vesife Hatisaru MEdB, MEdM, PhD, MEdD is a lecturer in Mathematics Education (Secondary) in the School of Education, Edith Cowan University Joondalup, and an adjunct senior reseacher in the School of Education, University of Tasmania. She had a long career as a secondary school mathematics teacher before entering academia.

Republish this article for free, online or in print, under Creative Commons licence.

4 thoughts on “Lazy, crazy mathematicians and other myths we need to bust

  1. aspiring maths teacher says:

    Interesting article! Thank you. I want to offer my alternative: “Since mathematicians look for ways to make things easier to think about…”

    My wording could be improved, but I often want to encourage students to feel empowered to make things easier for themselves – not more efficient necessarily, but easier to think about. If that means doing things a long way, creating models, or drawing pictures, then go for it. That’s better than having no idea how to proceed. Students seem afraid to do things the wrong (less efficient) way and then do nothing substantial.

    Progress in mathematics often means being able to see initially complicated ideas as simple somehow. Once you see the simple reasons why something is true, the complexity shrinks and you can hold more in your mind. Then you are ready to learn more.

  2. Kevin says:

    Thank you for sharing this fascinating read.

  3. Vesife Hatisaru says:

    Hi Kevin,
    Happy that you enjoyed reading it.
    All the very best,

  4. Vesife Hatisaru says:

    Many thanks for the comments, and I like the alternative you have kindly offered.
    Best, Vesife

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