Math Education Revolution: A Chat with Vanessa Vakharia on Raising Math-Loving Kids

Math Education Revolution: A Chat with Vanessa Vakharia on Raising Math-Loving Kids

by Chris Tompkins | October 18, 2023

Vanessa Vakharia is a math positivity advocate and founder/director of The Math Guru, a boutique tutoring space that offers a new and refreshing way for kids to learn math and STEM subjects. As a woman who has come up against stereotyping in her field, Vanessa is on a mission to debunk the stereotypes typically associated with math and how they impact women and girls, specifically. In addition to coaching our kids through their math hang-ups, Vanessa is a published author and regularly appears on TV to talk about her research. She is also the lead vocalist and keytarist in her rock band, Goodnight Sunrise, and hosts the Math Therapy podcast.

“Girl math”

Vanessa cites the latest “girl math” TikTok trend, wherein girls make videos talking about their personal finances in a demeaning way, as perpetuating the negative stereotype of women and girls being bad at math. The short videos depict girls calculating the cost of things or laying out their own financial rules, with quips like, “if something costs five dollars, it’s free,” or, “if I use cash, it’s like I didn’t spend any money.” And while they are meant as a joke, Vanessa points out that the videos perpetuate pop culture’s attrition of women in math.

“Have you ever seen a movie where the cheerleader is good at math?” Vanessa asks on the Shaping Our World podcast. “Girls are always presented with these tropes [in the media]. It’s like you can either be the cool kid or you can be good at math.”

Vanessa explains that it’s dangerous because the media has so much influence on young people and uses the example of an uptick of women in biology as having a direct correlation to the premiere of Grey’s Anatomy.

“We started seeing these cool, sexy doctor shows all over television where women are doctors,” Vanessa says. “They also get to have their love life … we started actually seeing female characters everywhere who could do both, and that really changed things in some of the STEM fields … but when it comes to math, we still don’t have that.”

The math pipeline as it pertains to women

Vanessa explains how this societal attitude about women and math that is ingrained in kids early on ultimately means fewer women in math-related fields as adults. She explains that in elementary school, girls’ math abilities are great and then when these girls hit high school they can choose whether they want to be the nerdy girl who is good at math or the popular girl.

“[Under these circumstances] why would you want to be good at math?” Vanessa asks.

So girls start to self-select out of it.

“Then they get into university, they go into these math programs and they’re often the only girl in the room or one of a few girls,” she says. “They’re feeling super awkward. There are microaggressions, there’s sexism, and then women start being like, ‘I don’t want to fight for this. This is annoying.’ Then more of them select out.”

The problem is magnified at subsequent levels of education and ultimately affects the workforce. The relative handful of women who do stay in math go to work in places that have only recently adopted equity and inclusion policies. So staff haven’t necessarily been treated well, and again, women select out — which is why stats show that only a quarter of math-related STEM jobs are filled by women.

What can parents do to foster their kids’ healthy relationship with math?

Vanessa says that while we can’t remake the movies and TV shows that have helped shape women’s relationship to math, we can talk to our kids about what they’re watching — like the “girl math” TikToks. Vanessa encourages parents to go about it by asking your child questions like, “Do you think it’s weird that the Prince was in love with Ariel even though she couldn’t say a word? What do you think that’s about?” Or asking your teen if they have ever seen a movie where the cheerleader is good at math. Vanessa also encourages parents to be aware of how they’re complementing their kids. She gives the example of studies showing that when it comes to math, teachers have historically been more likely to compliment a boy on his technical ability, for instance, while girls’ compliments tended to focus on their organization or the neatness of their work. This emphasizes and reinforces completely different skills. Finally, Vanessa encourages parents to avoid using phrases like “you are not a math person” or “I guess you didn’t get the math gene.”

“We have to watch what we say,” she explains, “so that kids get the message that there’s no such thing as a math person, there are no gender differences [when it comes to ability], that sort of thing.”

For more on what Vanessa has to say on how we can help revolutionize the way our kids think about math, listen to the full episode at the top of this post.

Visit our website to discover a variety of other guests that we’ve had on the show. Shaping Our World episodes are also available wherever you get podcasts.


[00:00:12.540] – Speaker 2
Hey, everyone. This is Chris Tompkins, the host of the Shaping Our World podcast. In this podcast, my goal is to invite you into a conversation that will leave you more confident in understanding and inspiring the young people in your life. Each episode, we talk with leading experts and offer relevant resources to dive deeper into the world of our youth today. Today, we’re diving into a topic that we haven’t really covered in the podcast and one that I know you’ll find really interesting. Have you ever thought back to your experience with math in school? Have you ever heard or felt that there are two types of people, people that are good at math and people that aren’t? Do you think that’s really a thing? What about our kids? As we journey alongside them and they get into math, I feel like that’s one of the subjects that just stands out alone as either people get it or they really struggle with it. And today we’re going to dive into some of those myths, some of the things about the STEM subjects, Women in STEM. And in order to do that, we’ve invited Vanessa Vakharia to the show, known as the Lady Gaga of Math Education.

[00:01:28.930] – Speaker 2
Vanessa is the founder and director of The Math Guru, a super cool boutique math and science tutoring studio in Toronto that’s changing stereotypes about what math education looks like. She’s also the host of The Math Therapy Podcast, author of The Math Hacks, Scholastic Book Series, and lead singer slash guitarist for the rock band, Good Night Sunrise. She has her Bachelor of Commerce teaching degree, and Master’s degree and master’s degree in math education. She appears regularly on national television and news outlets as an expert in math education and math positivity. And her goals are to be Oprah Levin famous and to totally change math culture so that Stem is finally as cool as every Taylor Swift song ever written. Interestingly, she failed math in grade 11 twice, and that was the best thing that ever happened to her. I think you’re really going to enjoy this conversation. It was a fun interview. It was so insightful. I even got some homework out of this. So let’s take a listen to the interview with Vanessa. Vanessa, great to have you with us on the show today.

[00:02:47.940] – Speaker 1
Thanks for having me.

[00:02:49.290] – Speaker 2
So as most of our listeners know, it’s called Shaping Our World, and we want to know what shaped your world growing up and what’s shaping your world today. So when you were growing up, what were some of the biggest influences in your life? What shaped your world?

[00:03:01.950] – Speaker 1
Oh, yeah, that’s a good question. What shaped my world? Definitely 100 % probably the number one thing that shaped my world was Brittany Spears and Keanu Reeves. Keanu Reeves and Brittany were my entire identity and just Much Music and celebrity gossip magazines. I was always very into that stuff, so very into celebrities, for sure. It’s funny. After that, I’m like, I don’t know anything else. No, that’s literally everything. That’s all anyone did. I think that probably shaped my world. My experiences of school shaped my world. Who I was treated as and perceived as and became, so definitely my relationship to education. And then, I guess my parents because I was a kid.

[00:03:52.860] – Speaker 2
Yeah, which obviously it’s school, parents, friends are traditional things people often mention. This is maybe the first time I’ve had Keanu Reeves mentioned as.

[00:04:06.610] – Speaker 1

[00:04:07.130] – Speaker 2
A world. Oh, my God. What? Well, yeah. That’s interesting. I can remember watching Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.

[00:04:15.860] – Speaker 1
For me, it was Speed that did it.

[00:04:17.530] – Speaker 2
I may be a bit older than you, so that would date that. But Speed is one of my wife’s favourite movies, I can tell you that for sure.

[00:04:24.350] – Speaker 1
Well, it’s literally a masterpiece.

[00:04:26.930] – Speaker 2
What’s shaping your world today? Are you still into this-.

[00:04:29.710] – Speaker 1
Keanu Reeves, Britney Spears, still? Well, of course. I mean, now look at them both now. They’re really shaping our worlds now. The Free Brittany movement is literally one of the most talked about things. Keanu is actually everyone’s guardian angel. I still want to marry him. Those things. It’s funny. And I’m like, Yeah, actually, now that we’re talking about this, I really do. I watch all the Love is Blind, The Ultimatum, The Bachelor. Now I guess it’s a different type of celebrity that’s shaping my world, the reality celebrity. I’m very consumed by that. But also because I work with teenagers now, it’s even more so that I’m almost shaped by how media is shaping their world. I’m often not up on it, but the latest TikTok trend or what Taylor Swift is doing or whatever, their experiences of that I have to pay such close attention to because I’m now educating them. I know what shaped my world when I was a teenager, and I know how influential those things are to them, and that means for me as an adult, I need to understand them. So all of those things. And then yeah, weird.

[00:05:37.370] – Speaker 1
I guess the same. Education is shaping my world, but now in a different way, looking at it from this side of things.

[00:05:43.820] – Speaker 2
So we’re going to get into what you’re doing. But I just want to pause for a second because it sounds to me like you might have a really interesting perspective for this, because when we talk to experts and people that are into knowing what’s going on, often social media comes up and people have different perspectives on it. We’ve had people on the show that come from all sides of it, right? But you clearly have your finger on the pulse of this. To help parents who are listening like, What’s going on with TikTok? Should they be freaked out about TikTok? What are you.? Oh, God.

[00:06:16.900] – Speaker 1
Yes. Yeah. You should. You should be scared. You should be really freaked out. I’m freaked out. So there’s two things. Number one, I’m in a rock band, okay? So that’s a big part of my life. And because of that, I am so ingrained in social media because that is the thing for musicians. That’s all you’re supposed to be doing is literally being on social media. I have that horrible experience of it, which is constantly comparing myself to everyone on their constantly being told our posts aren’t good enough and we’re not relevant. I have that side. But then from an education perspective, every time I walk into the tutoring studio, there are some new thing of being like, Oh, have you not seen this thing on TikTok? Or blah, blah, blah. So as the best example right now, this is actually so perfect we’re talking about this. For the past month, there has been this new trend on TikTok called Girl Math. Do you know about it? Yeah. What? Oh, my God. So it’s like the biggest thing. It’s everywhere. It’s so big now that CBC is writing about it, The Globle and Mail. They finally caught on.

[00:07:16.760] – Speaker 1
But this entire trend is basically girls being like, I know how to do financial math. If something costs five dollars, it’s free. If I use cash, it’s like I didn’t spend any money. This is what’s going viral with my students. So as an educator, I see this and I’m like, We need to all have a talk about what stereotype this is perpetuating about women in math. As an example. But what all these girls are seeing are like, Ha ha, this is so funny. I feel like for parents, it’s like, No, okay, I’m obviously being a fear monger, being like, You should be terrified. But aren’t we all terrified? Literally, it’s so crazy how quickly something goes viral, how it literally takes over someone’s entire identity. There are things to not be but I guess just be aware of. And then on the plus side to be like, These trends come and go so fast that it’s over the second it started. So at least there’s that.

[00:08:08.330] – Speaker 2
Yeah. And you bring up the point of knowing what’s going on and your girls, which creates stereotypes and reinforces things. But how do we see what’s going on and use it to have important conversations that we should be having with our kids anyways, right? Exactly. How they think about who they are and what they want to do when they grow up and what things are being reinforced to them subtly that they don’t even know about.

[00:08:34.460] – Speaker 1
Exactly. That’s the perfect way to put it, actually.

[00:08:37.580] – Speaker 2
So from that, you’ve talked a little bit about what you do. Tell us what you’re doing now that’s shaping the world of teens and young people. Tutoring math? I hear some stuff in there. We’ve done some of the bio, but let’s hear it from your own words. Yeah.

[00:08:51.240] – Speaker 1
I run The Math guru, which is Toronto’s coolest math tutoring studio, I will say. We’ve been in business for 12 years, so literally, I like to think that we’re positively impacting students by changing stereotypes of what it means to be good at math. We have really diverse tutors just in every way. Some of our tutors are athletes and magicians and musicians, and then obviously diversity in the more traditional ways. Kids get to come in in this amazing space and just be like, Wow, math is fun here and it’s different and I feel really capable. We have all these talks about stuff like girl math, so it’s cool in that sense. But then I also do a lot of professional development with teachers, so I have a podcast called Math Therapy, which is all about exploring how students and adults get math trauma. I work a lot with teachers directly. Hopefully, these teachers are then going into their classrooms with math therapy in mind and learning a process for how to help kids through their math anxiety. I hope that that’s impacting things positively. Then, as I mentioned, I’m in a rock band. Look us up.

[00:09:53.950] – Speaker 1
We’re called Good Night, Sunrise, Shameless plug. We’re all about having a good time. Also our songs are very motivational, not in a cheesy way, but it’s all about positive messaging and about inclusivity and that idea that music can be something that brings people together regardless of differing beliefs. We can all find what we have in common. Hopefully all those things are a.

[00:10:19.170] – Speaker 2
Good vibe. Yeah, well, I was going to say not often do you mix teacher education, math, and rock and roll together, but I think that’s a good… Why not? To… Why not? Right? I think that’s awesome. Why not? So yeah, I’m really looking forward, Vanessa, to finding out a little bit more about some of the stuff that you’re involved in and your perspective on these things, because this is an important topic, I think, and one that we don’t often talk about, particularly I have a daughter who’s 17 and just the relationship with math and science and some of those STEM subjects. And so I am really interested in this and talk to a lot of teachers too. I know personally how big a deal teachers can play, just to affirm what you’re doing, not that you need that, but the role teachers play in particularly in math. In grade eight, my daughter had a teacher. Mr. Banfield was his name who was a phenomenal teacher. He made math engaging and fun and informative for the kids. And everyone who came out of his class was miles ahead in grade nine. Wow, yeah. And I just know how important that is, and I know what that does for young people, and I think sometimes it’s easy to just…

[00:11:36.400] – Speaker 2
I think it’s really easy with topics like math to just be like, Well, kids are math, kids are they’re not. That’s it, right? Oh, gross. You probably have heard that.

[00:11:43.470] – Speaker 1
Yeah, my life’s work is to.

[00:11:45.720] – Speaker 2
Eradicate that. Yeah, so let’s get into some of that. In my research, I was reading that women make up only about 28% of the workforce in STEM, and likewise, only a quarter of math-related STEM jobs are filled by women. But I was also reading and know just anecdotally that the gender gap in mathematics between boys and girls with boys having traditionally performed better in earlier years, closes by about grade eight, and in some countries even reverses in favors of girls. So what do you think is happening when it comes to young women, girls, and their relationship to math between that adolescent grade eight time to college, university graduation? Why are women so unrepresented in the math professionally?

[00:12:31.660] – Speaker 1
My entire master’s thesis is on this. It’s called Imagining a world where Paris Hilton loves math, and it literally explores female attrition, the lack of female participation in math. I’m the perfect person to ask about this. I also want to add that I actually think that there is no longer a gender gap literally at all at any age when it comes to math. I think that’s been we’ve moved past that now. So that’s also a good point to note is there really is no ability gap in math. There is a lot of things that happen. But very briefly, I’ll just go over them quick. The first thing is what we are talking about, which is media. For the longest time, there’s just been so little representation. The best example I can think of is, have you ever seen a movie where the cheerleader is good at math?

[00:13:20.920] – Speaker 2
Have you? No, not that I can remember.

[00:13:24.540] – Speaker 1
No? Girls are always presented with these tropes. It’s like you can either be the cool kid or you can be good at math. That’s number one. Number two, for further proof that the media really is so influential, when Grey’s Anatomy came out and ER, do you remember when ER came out? Literally, since then, if you look, so that stat you gave me of the percentage of women in Stemfield, biology is the science where actually women overtake men because so many women are doctors now and choose to go to medical school. I haven’t done a thesis on this, but I really want to. It totally correlates with that time when we started seeing these cool, sexy doctor shows all over television where women are doctors. They get to also have their love life. Think about the Mindy Project, like Mindy Kaling. She was this cool doctor who also was super into fashion and boys. We started actually seeing female characters everywhere who could do both, and that really changed things in some of the STEM fields. But we don’t have the cool, sexy engineering… Sorry, sexy is really the wrong word to be saying on a podcast for parents.

[00:14:30.780] – Speaker 1
I don’t mean it that way. I just mean, I mean, cool. It’s like a cool vibe. These women basically don’t have to sacrifice their entire identities just to be good at math, like the nerd versus popular girl.

[00:14:44.240] – Speaker 2
Trope when it.

[00:14:45.250] – Speaker 1
Comes to biology. But when it comes to math, we still don’t have that.

[00:14:49.450] – Speaker 2
We don’t have that.

[00:14:50.340] – Speaker 1
Yeah, that’s interesting. Even if you look at the Big Bang theory, it’s like the girls are still this very specific type of character who are socially awkward. There’sthat, is that if you’re growing up watching this stuff or the TikTok trend last year, do you want to know what the big trend was? It was called You’re Either Pretty or You’re Good at Math. And the entire trend was a girl would take a selfie video, stare at the camera for five seconds and then write, Which one am I? That was the trend.

[00:15:19.730] – Speaker 2
So how.

[00:15:20.770] – Speaker 1
Messed up is that? That’s 2022, and that’s what these girls are seeing on TikTok. So it’s like, Why would you want to be good at math? Even if you’re good at it, you’re like, That’s not my identity. That doesn’t align with my values. It’s not for me. So that’s number one. Number two, I mean, just straight up sexism. If you look at what you’ll often find is as the pipeline increases, so their abilities are great in elementary school. They move on to grade seven and eight, fine. They get into high school where you can start selecting out of math. You can start reducing, are you going to go into a math program in university? You lose some of the girls because of something like I just told you, for example. Then they get into university, they go into these math programs. They’re often the only girl in the room or one or a few girls, they’re feeling super awkward. There’s microaggressions, there’s sexism, and then women start being like, I don’t want to fight for this. This is annoying. Then more of them select out then you’re in the masters program. There’s even fewer women.

[00:16:17.190] – Speaker 1
So it continues down the pipeline and then into the workforce where a lot of companies traditionally until recently haven’t had inclusion and equity policies. They have not treated their staff well and women select out. So that’s another reason. And then the last thing I will just say, because I see this firsthand and you probably have experience with this, is that because of all of the stereotypes and because women innately know that there is this whole thing that they’re supposed to be bad at math or stereotypically bad at math, even if they’re doing really well, they don’t feel good at math. For example, at our tutoring center, we tutor a ton of people who are getting 90s and who still have math anxiety, who still think they can’t do it, who still think it’s a fluke that they’re getting a 90. They don’t feel like they’re good at math in the traditional sense of like, Well, Matt Damon and Goodwill Hunting just knows all the answers and doesn’t have to do any work, and I have to work for it. There’s more, but those are three things I’d like everyone to think about. They’re societal, they’re at the grassroots level, they’re at all levels of what we need to think about beyond ability.

[00:17:25.150] – Speaker 2
Yeah. So let me ask you a question on that, because I think that’s really interesting. So obviously, well, I don’t think you and I can go out and start to redo Hollywood and films, but what can we, as parents or teachers or people that work with young people, what can we start to do to help change that from the ground up thing, right?

[00:17:50.100] – Speaker 1
So I think one of the things… Like, sure, we can’t remake a movie, but we can talk, like you were talking about talking about those TikTok trends, we can talk about that stuff with our kids and be like, Do you think it’s weird? If you want to watch a Disney movie, you want to watch The Little Mermaid or something, right? It’s like you can watch it and then be like, Do you think it’s weird that the Prince was in love with Ariel and she couldn’t even say a word? What do you think that’s about? You can talk about that stuff. I find with kids, especially when they get to be teenagers, they don’t want to be told anything. So asking them and getting them to come up with stuff on their own, like asking them like, Have you ever seen a movie where the cheerleader is good at math? Have a whole discussion about that. That’s one of the first things we can do. I think number two is calling that stuff out when we see it, and whether it’s in your kid’s classroom, whether it’s among a friend group, whether it’s in the games you select or the toys they play, just being aware of that and calling it out.

[00:18:50.020] – Speaker 1
One big thing is recognizing how you complement kids. For example, a lot of studies show in elementary school when teachers, and maybe parents do this too, are complimenting their kids’ work, they’ll often look at a boy’s math work and say things like, Great problem solving. Oh, you really thought out of the box on that one. Then they’ll look at a girl’s work and say something like, I really like the way you organized your notes. That looks so pretty. So giving different types of compliments that emphasize different skills. Interesting, yeah. We can think about how we talk to our kids, how we compliment them, saying things like, I’m just not a math person. You didn’t get the math gene, like watching what we say so that kids get the message that there’s no such thing as a math person, there are no gender differences, that thing. I think those are two things.

[00:19:40.810] – Speaker 2
I think, yeah, those are really good. I think just to even add to that, I think sometimes when you work with young people, particularly young women, but I’ve seen it in guys too. You talked about how there are two alternatives in that TikTok trend, right? Are you pretty? Are you good at math or smart or whatever it was? I think sometimes when you have people that are maybe cool or if they’re the guy, they’re the star athlete, or if they’re the girl, they’re the popular one in school and they’re really smart, they feel like they can’t be both. And they often shy away from their academic success or their abilities in that end, and they don’t like talking about it, or they don’t celebrate it. And I think we can also start with encouraging our kids, particularly our young women, to start owning the fact that they’re good in math and STEM stuff, and to try to start making that cool with giving them confidence about who they are and how they’re wired, and that they don’t just have to fit into the traditional stereotypes that they see out there, and they can start to change it from the ground up, I think, is something that we can even encourage with our own young people that we have in our lives.

[00:20:55.160] – Speaker 1
Yeah, I think that’s great. I get the same reaction that all the time when people are like, Oh, wow, like math and in a band. That’s so rare. Totally, sure. But it’s also not as rare as we think, actually. Exactly. The guitarist in my band is actually an engineer. There is actually quite an overlap, but we never talk about that. I think as a society, we find it so… We need to categorize things to make things easier for us to make the world make sense. But in doing so, you’re really limiting people by saying, Are you a creative person or a logic person? Like a right brain or left brain? Gemini or Sagittarius? Which one are you? I think encouraging that complexity in kids and being like, You don’t need to choose. You can be all the things that makes you cool and unique. That’s another important message.

[00:21:42.980] – Speaker 2
Yeah, it’s great. In an earlier answer, you mentioned math anxiety, so I wanted to talk a little bit about that. I know there’s an increased focus on kids’ feelings about math right now. Our producer’s daughter, who’s in grade two, a large chunk of her math unit at the beginning of the year dealt with her feelings surrounding math, which is- What? Yeah.

[00:22:05.760] – Speaker 1
Oh, my God, I love this. What school? I love that they’re doing this.

[00:22:09.720] – Speaker 2
Yeah, and it’s so interesting. And that’s definitely changed since when I was in school, right? Oh, yeah. We just talked about the learning, not how we feel about that. And so from what I’ve read, math anxiety can affect both genders, not just girls. Yeah. What’s that about? Why do you think kids are so profoundly affected by math? Why aren’t we hearing about English anxiety or science anxiety?

[00:22:32.630] – Speaker 1
Literally, yeah. I’m editing a course that I have for math anxious teachers right now, and I was literally editing just that part. And it’s funny, I literally just did that section of why is math anxiety such a thing? And again, so many reasons, but a few key reasons. Number one, if you’re in Ontario or Canada, literally every three months there is some giant news story about how all kids are failing math and they’re never going to get jobs and everything’s so horrible and like la la la. I think actually parents are really anxious about their kids’ math abilities and kids can just sense it. They know, they see those news stories, they hear their kids talk, that there is standardized test scores keep getting lower in Ontario. All of this, I’m saying nonsense because it is right now. It’s just a big disconnect. But I think there is a lot of fear from parents, understandably, because there’s so much fear mongering in the news. But I think that trickles down. And then compounded on that, you have the narrative that every single job in the future is going to require students to know how to code and math and AI.

[00:23:44.860] – Speaker 1
So then you’re like, Oh, my God, our kids are failing math, but at the same time, they can’t get a job without math. What am I going to do? I think there’s that whole narrative going around. But then also something we don’t think about when we think of being good at math. Because let’s forget, math anxiety, I actually think, has existed forever and ever because if you speak to any adult, most of them have math anxiety or what I like to call math trauma. That was before all of these narratives started coming to play. If you think about it, when we think about math, we actually incorrectly correlate it with intelligence. So if someone is good at math, they are smart. We don’t call Picasso smart. We don’t call Adele or Pavarotti smart. Even though they’ve worked so hard, they’re so good at their talents, we call them talents. So what happens is… I always think about this. When I get off stage, I’ve played an entire rock show. I’ve shredded my guitar. I’ve been singing this and that. No one will call me smart. But as soon as they find out I’m a math teacher, they’ll be like, Wow, you must be so smart.

[00:24:54.970] – Speaker 1
And I’m like, I don’t understand. You know nothing about me except that I’m a math teacher and that makes me smart. So everyone knows this. Everyone knows that math makes you either smart or not smart. I think there’s so much anxiety around that because if you’re bad at math, it doesn’t say anything about just your math ability. It tells the world you’re not intelligent. I think it’s like such a loaded subject.

[00:25:17.740] – Speaker 2
Wow, yeah. That’s so insightful, Vanessa. I never thought of it that way.

[00:25:22.190] – Speaker 1
I think it’s the biggest thing, and then compound that with the final thing, which is in math, there’s traditionally right and wrong. Right. So it’s so easy to fail. It’s like it’s so easy to get it wrong, and then you get it wrong, and now-.

[00:25:33.270] – Speaker 2
Yeah, it’s not subjective at.

[00:25:34.500] – Speaker 1
All, right? No. And then now you’re not smart. And then it’s like, Oh, my God. So when you speak to an adult, most people shudder when they say the word math, or they’re just like, Oh, my God. It’s something that islike a limiting belief that they’ve formed so early in life about their abilities, period. And it’s because of math.

[00:25:51.870] – Speaker 2
Man, I’m just thinking you talked about Matt Damon and Goodwill Hunting before, right? When he’s just staring at it. And I think there’s this idea, which may be true, that some people, quote-unquote, get math really easily. Their brain works that way, and then everybody else has to work at it, right?

[00:26:11.560] – Speaker 1
Yeah. Right now, let’s get rid of that.

[00:26:14.270] – Speaker 2

[00:26:14.960] – Speaker 1
Get rid of it right now.

[00:26:16.230] – Speaker 2
Movies like that play into that, where you just get the chalk and he does. And then your point is, Oh, that guy’s a genius.

[00:26:23.370] – Speaker 1
He’s a genius. Exactly. There you go. And keep in mind he had no social skills. We don’t even know what else he was good at. Couldn’t hold down a relationship, but he’s a genius.

[00:26:31.820] – Speaker 2
He couldn’t hold down a job or- Exactly.

[00:26:33.590] – Speaker 1
So why is he so smart? And then also the other thing is, but I really want to make sure we just spelt this myth right now for people listening. This idea that there’s some genetic predisposition. No, it is… There is none of that is proven. Anything you do, except for prodigies, okay? Literally, which is such a small percentage of the population, often people will say things like, Oh, but he gravitated towards math at such an early age. He always got it. There is sothat, nurture has so much Veto power over any nature connection to math ability, seriously. You need to get that out of your head right now. Math is a skill that can be learned. You might think someone gets it easier or this and that, and likely it has to do with nurture. They played a lot of games when they were growing up. They were always doing Lego.

[00:27:21.690] – Speaker 2
But isn’t that also true with a lot of things? Yes. You can learn how to play the guitar, but some people just feel like it’s a bit more natural, right?

[00:27:29.910] – Speaker 1
But- And that’s fine. And it’s like, yes, but I think the key is a bit more natural and likely as a result of previous activities that you wouldn’t even associate with playing guitar. They listen to a lot of music. They were really into maybe math. Actually, maybe their math skills are translating over to the guitar. We need to get rid of this whole genetic basis rumor.

[00:27:56.040] – Speaker 2
Yeah, that’s great. Clearly, you have some insight, passion around this. You opened The Math guru in 2010 with the aim of helping kids or trying to help kids who are struggling with math. How is your approach different than what is happening in traditional school? What do you think it is about the math-guru that contributes to the successful outcomes you have for students?

[00:28:20.350] – Speaker 1
Well, I think the first thing is we really do take the approach that there’s no such thing as a math person. There’s no such thing. It’s like, There’s no such thing as a math person, but there’s such a thing as a great teacher, and that’s really the end of it. We really meet kids where they are. We don’t expect them to come into our studio and disregard their entire identity just to do math, which is often what school does. It’s like, come in, take off your hat, spit out your gun, be quiet, raise your hand, whereas we have incense going there are pink, felt like couches, we’re laughing, we’re having a good time. Everyone’s learning math, but it’s this collaborative fun environment where you can be yourself and be good at math, and you’re seeing all sorts of examples of all these different people who look different, act different, speak differently, and all love math. So you’re like, Okay, representation. But then number two, it’s funny what you just said about your producer’s daughter, we really do talk about feelings around math. We’re doing our math tutoring session, and if a kid is panicking, we’re like, Oh, my God, that’s totally normal.

[00:29:18.790] – Speaker 1
It’s actually like this is why people might feel nervous around math. It has nothing to do with your ability, and we take the time to have that discussion because so often people think if they have bad feelings around math, it means they’re bad at it. I’m anxious about this thing. I must be bad at it. And another little scientific anecdote. There is no correlation between math anxiety and mathability. Zero. I have severe math anxiety. If you ask me, there’s actually don’t look this up, but there’s a clip on… I was on a show called Canada’s the smartest person, where on camera I got the answer to four minus three wrong because I was so panicked and… I’m great at math. I know what four minus three is. That’s another thing that I think makes us different is we really take the time to talk about those things, and we look at it like a holistic approach to math education.

[00:30:07.310] – Speaker 2
Wow. Yeah, that’s awesome.

[00:30:09.620] – Speaker 1
Send me your.

[00:30:10.350] – Speaker 2
Kids, everyone. Yeah, yeah. Well, that’s.

[00:30:12.400] – Speaker 1
Part of what- We do science too. It’s math and science. That’s another thing, is we get to explore that relationship and do both things. Math is the language of science. You see it all coming together.

[00:30:23.720] – Speaker 2
I love hearing this, and I love the connection. The last line of your bio, or the first line of your bio, is that you failed grade 11 math twice, and then you went on to get a graduate degree in math education, opened the Math Guru. I feel like back in grade 11, most kids would have thrown in the towel and moved on to something else. But instead, you doubled down. You made it your career. There’s clearly some resilience around that. Can you speak a little bit about the importance of resilience for young people and where that came from for you?

[00:30:57.100] – Speaker 1
Sure. And I want to say it was like resilience, but also privilege, because after that experience at a public school, my parents sent me to this amazing school called Solah. I don’t know if you remember it, School of Liberal Arts. It was in an office building across from North Toronto, and that’s what really changed my life. I had the most incredible math teacher. I was in a class of 15 kids in a school of 100 kids. It was like this alternative school. There was no such thing as a math person. Everyone was not a stereotype. I was very lucky. If that hadn’t happened, none of this would have happened. So I’m very very lucky and privileged that my parents were able to send me there, honestly. And so that was the first thing. But also in going in there, my math teacher had right from the beginning. I had said to her, You’re not going to have a good time with me. I’m bad at math. I’m not a math person. And she was like, I don’t know what you’re talking about. There’s no such thing as a math person. I made a decision. I was like, I’m in a new school.

[00:31:51.410] – Speaker 1
I’m going to just give it another try. I’m going to sit here. I’m going to do my homework. I’m going to do all the things I’m supposed to do and let’s see if I get better at this. And I did. And so it was a combination of putting my mind to it, yes, for sure, and being like, I’m going to give this another try, but also having a teacher who was telling me that she believed in me and that there was no such thing, this whole thing I was thinking that I just can’t do math isn’t true. I think resilience is very important. Sure. It’s so, so important. But we have to teach that to our kids and we have to show them that we believe in them. Parents digging back into your archive of stories like this of where you failed and failed and then you tried again and succeeded or whatever it is, or techniques you used or how you got yourself back together after failing because that can be really traumatic and really upsetting. Those are things we can’t really expect kids to just be resilient. They need to be reminded of other times in their own life when they were resilient.

[00:32:55.990] – Speaker 1
For example, maybe they fell the first 50 times they tried to get on that bike, and now they can bike with no problem. They’ve forgotten that struggle. They’ve forgotten that they already have resilience and they’ve used it. They’ve tapped into it before. So many times in their life. Reminding them of that constantly and impressing upon them that they have that resilience and that skill and you can translate it to anything in your life, including math class, is very important.

[00:33:21.710] – Speaker 2
Yeah, and I think connecting these things that you’ve talked about, right? If a young kid believes they’re not a math person, they’re just never going to be, you can’t connect other stories of resilience because they’re like, Well, sure, I learned how to ride my bike after falling four times, but you can learn how to ride a bike. You can’t be a math. And so I think that’s a great connection is first of all, we have to dispel some of the myths like you’re saying right now. And then once we’re able to do that, then when it gets hard, when they’re like, I don’t get it. I can’t understand it. We can speak into them and encourage resilience. I love that. Use other stories. Remember the time you did this and you did that, and that can encourage them to stick with it and to work through it and to not give up and to try different approaches or whatever it takes to move through it. I think sometimes we’re like, Well, you just need to have realistic expectations in math. A pass is good enough because you’re just not a math person. That’s really not going to set them up or try to make them successful, at least from pushing through and being resilient and potentially learning something that they never initially thought they had in them to figure this out.

[00:34:41.480] – Speaker 1
Well, on that side, you don’t have to be like, Oh, I’m not saying a pass isn’t good enough because it’s a pass. I mean, that’s fine. But it’s more like don’t say that a pass is good enough because you’re not a math person. The key is if you want to emphasize different skills, like what they’re learning along the way or how they’re learning to overcome making mistakes or focusing on progress instead of perfection, that’s all great stuff. But the key is to me, it’s growth mindset, right? Like just being like, No one’s abilities are fixed. There’s no such thing as a math person. It’s the same thing.

[00:35:10.000] – Speaker 2
Yeah. We always talk about encouraging our kids to do their best, right? And whatever it is they’re tackling. And if their mindset is that it’s just not possible, then it’s going to be really hard to overcome. I think that’s great. So yeah, we’ve talked and I know we tackled this earlier, but I just maybe want to circle back. We did talk a lot about biases, particularly around women and girls in math, and so many of these are subconscious. How can we, as parents, make sure we’re safeguarding against these things? And we mentioned it a little bit, but I wonder if there’s any other helpful things you can have about even recognizing some of the own biases we have in our own lives through our language or our thoughts. Of course, we’re telling our daughters they can do anything and they can be anything they want, but then they get into their first job. And like we talked about someone saying, Well, you’re too pretty to be in math, or different things like that. So what can we do? What’s it going to take for us to encourage young women to explore careers in STEM and to do the things that they’re wired to do and are great at doing?

[00:36:17.530] – Speaker 2
What can we do as parents to unpack our own biases and then help young people live into the potential that they have in these areas?

[00:36:27.370] – Speaker 1
I think there’s two big things. The first is everyone, especially men and dads and boys, should go see the Barbie movie immediately. That’s the first thing that needs to happen is family Barbie movie and then discussion about it. I say dads because I actually think men are really, really important at this where we are as a society in terms of needing to be allies. We always talk about how do we encourage girls and how do we make girls see and da da da da. And it’s like, girls are humans. They want to be curious and explore. We don’t need to convince them to like math or science. None of that needs to happen. But we have to take accountability for creating environments that help them feel included and welcome instead of feeling like Impostors. That’s on us. That’s on us. And it’s on a lot of men, right? Because they hold so much weight. If you, as… When women say stuff often about this. It’s like, Oh, women complaining again. Da da da. There’s so much more power if a guy actually comes out and says it. I actually think I’d really like to empower any men listening to be like, You’re so important in this movement for change.

[00:37:45.630] – Speaker 1
It’s even more important for you, especially if you have a son, if you have male children. It’s even more important for you to be the one bringing this stuff up. Imagine this little pipeline of a girl in class, and a boy says something like, Oh, girls are bad at math anyway, or something. Imagine you’re the dad of that kid. You can affect so much change by imparting upon your sons that these stereotypes exist and don’t. This is what a microaggression is and yeah, that son is now not going to say that stuff in math class and not impact that girl that way and the rest of the girls in the class. So I just think thinking about the pipeline that way of being like, we focus so much on girls and it’s so amazing, but we need to focus on what we’re doing with the non-women in this situation. So that’s number one. I actually think that’s my main point because I don’t think we ever talk about it enough. It’s like, Oh, get your girls math-friendly toys and this and that. It’s like, All that stuff is great, obviously. But until representation is there, until the environments exist for these women to want to thrive in, like we’re at an impasse because it’s hard to be to want to choose to be in an environment that you know is going to be tougher for you.

[00:39:11.770] – Speaker 1
That’s a tough choice to make. That doesn’t have so much to do with how much you love math or science, but what life you want for yourself. Do you want a life where you’re constantly having to fight? That’s annoying. I have tons of amazing women to pave the way and are doing it, but it’s like that’s hard. So anyway, there’s really going off the soapbox.

[00:39:32.100] – Speaker 2
Here, but like- No, that’s so good, because I like to think that I, particularly with my daughter and other spheres of our lives, my colleagues, I’m one that loves to champion young women particularly because of the work that I do and what’s possible and what they can do. But I know sometimes there’s just stuff ingrained in society that you come across or you might say, a reinforce without even knowing it. So it’s great to think through that as a man, particularly. Honestly, my daughter saw The Barbie movie with some friends and was talking all about it. And so now I’m going to have to go see it and talk to her about it.

[00:40:14.870] – Speaker 1

[00:40:15.220] – Speaker 2
You seen it?

[00:40:16.380] – Speaker 1
You have to see it. You truly do.

[00:40:19.410] – Speaker 2
There’s my homework from the podcast today.

[00:40:22.500] – Speaker 1
There’s your homework. Please do it, because I feel like that you’re going to walk away and be like, and then talk about it because it’s yeah. Oh, my God, I’m so excited for you.

[00:40:33.750] – Speaker 2
Yeah, that’s great. Well, and I just saw my TV. I can get it here and maybe we can watch it together. I’m sure she’d love to. Not often do I have homework given to me right from a podcast, so I think that’s amazing.

[00:40:47.710] – Speaker 1
I can’t wait. Please follow up.

[00:40:49.020] – Speaker 2
With me. Yeah. So as we wrap up, Vanessa, a couple last things just to think through. I know there are some parents who honestly have been listening to this who are like, Oh, my goodness, this has been a great conversation, but has been like, Okay, yeah, my kids are struggling with math. This has been such an uphill battle. Because I do think kids… I go with school in general, but math is that one subject that often gets pulled out separately, as we talked about. So obviously they should go and check out what you’re doing as the math guru, for sure, if they’re in Toronto. But outside of that, are there other resources, opportunities you can just suggest to parents with kids that are struggling with math specifically?

[00:41:39.650] – Speaker 1
So first, just to throw in, we do virtual tutoring as well, and it’s not boring. It’s actually fun. So if you’re anywhere, sure.

[00:41:46.360] – Speaker 2

[00:41:47.080] – Speaker 1
Other things you can do. Okay, so if your kid is struggling with math, I think first of all, the most important thing is to figure out why, and that can be something you do with their teacher, that can be something you do with a friend who can look through their tests and figure it out. I find often we jump to the conclusion that if kids aren’t getting good marks in math, just like intervention is needed, but what isn’t? Sometimes we see a kid for math and it’s like they just don’t know a couple of concepts from two years ago and we fix that and everything’s fine. Sometimes they’re really having trouble keeping up and they’re not understanding what’s currently happening in class. That’s a totally different intervention. I think it’s important to figure out why your kid is struggling to talk to them about it and to have someone literally look at their work and figure out what’s going on. That can be a tutor, that can be a teacher, that can be literally a friend you have. That’s step number one. Step number two is if you’re like, Okay, what can my kid do to get better with their skills?

[00:42:46.560] – Speaker 1
I find this one hard to recommend because everyone likes different things. There are games like Prodigy, for example, that are really fun. For a kid who loves gaming, it’s a fun way to get up on your skills. There are stuff like Khan Academy, and for older grades, if you need to relearn a particular lesson, that’s good. But then also there is math TikTok, and there’s really good stuff on there. So if your teen is struggling to learn a concept, you can find any video on TikTok for that concept. They’re more likely to want to do that, and you can find something explained in a fun way that they like. So that’s another thing they can do. And then finally, I really think the math, identity piece and the feelings around math are really, really important. So finding a way to… And that’s a bit of a tougher one because there’s less stuff out there right now, but finding books or workbooks on growth mindset even for younger kids, that can be really helpful, just starting to work on their minds. But I feel like I’m not even that helpful in this resources department because it’s a broad question because it’s so age-specific and depending on what they need.

[00:43:57.760] – Speaker 1
But there is help out there no matter what, and it’s about figuring out what the actual symptoms are.

[00:44:06.820] – Speaker 2
Vanessa, any final thoughts, words of encouragement for parents who are jarning along kids, maybe particularly daughters or kids that are struggling academically in school or just anything that you got the last word to give some words of encouragement, hope and cheer people on. What would you tell them today?

[00:44:27.610] – Speaker 1
I honestly think the thing I would say is everything is going to be okay. It’s going to work out. It’s just all going to work out. I can just imagine the nightmare my parents were in being like, Oh, my God, our daughter is on track to marry Keanu Reeves. She’s failing all of her high school courses, and all she cares about is becoming famous. They were probably so stressed out. And I’m fine. I’ve turned out okay. So I think it’s like, especially at the younger ages, it’s great to be preventative. It’s great to even be reactive and to follow along and to be watching for what your kids need, and that’s the best you can do. But one way or another, if they don’t get into their top universities or they have their choice, or even if they do or if they don’t get into any and they have to… Whatever the thing is, they’re going to figure it out. And life really is a journey, not a destination to quote Aerosmith. And it’s what they learn along the way. You never know. It’s not a straight line. And probably everyone listening to this can look back on their own life and be like, Yeah, I thought I was going to end up here and now I’m there and it’s fine.

[00:45:38.580] – Speaker 1
So just to remember not to panic. That’s it. Don’t panic.

[00:45:43.020] – Speaker 2
That’s great. Great advice. Vanessa, this has been such a great conversation. I’ve learned a lot from it. I really appreciate the time you given us today. And all the best as you continue to inspire the next generation of mathematicians and young people who are going to do great things in this world. Thanks for doing what you do and appreciate your time today.

[00:46:03.330] – Speaker 1
Thank you so much for having me.

[00:46:04.890] – Speaker 2
And tell us your rock band again just in case anybody wants-.

[00:46:08.200] – Speaker 1
Oh, yeah. The most important part. Sorry, everyone, please go listen to Good Night Sunrise. Find us on all streaming services. Please just listen to the new stuff. We recorded it with the rhythm section of Our Lady Peace. It’s great. We’ve even opened for Bon Jovi once. We’re very cool. Please become a fan.

[00:46:24.950] – Speaker 2
I love it. So good. We’re learning multiple things here. And go watch the Barbie movie, Dads, and talk about it with your daughter.

[00:46:32.770] – Speaker 1
And ask them questions. I feel like you’re going to be like, Oh, my gosh. People feel that way? Or What was this scene about? There’s a lot to unpack there.

[00:46:43.280] – Speaker 2
So good. Well, thanks, Vanessa. Thanks for joining us today.

[00:46:47.300] – Speaker 1
Thanks for having me.

About the Author

Chris Tompkins is the CEO of Muskoka Woods. He holds a degree in Kinesiology from the University of Guelph, a teacher’s college degree from the University of Toronto and a Master’s degree in Youth Development from Clemson University. His experience leading in local community, school, church and camp settings has spanned over 20 years. His current role and expertise generates a demand for him to speak with teens and consult with youth leaders. Chris hosts the Muskoka Woods podcast, Shaping Our World where he speaks with youth development experts. He is an avid sports fan who enjoys an afternoon with a big cup of coffee and a good book. Chris resides in Stouffville, Ontario with his wife and daughter.
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