Can every kid pwn calculus? (or: where does mathematical brilliance come from, and can we make it boringly normal?)

Can every student succeed brilliantly at math? Where does talent come from, anyhow? As we imagine what our school might look like, and what it might aspire to pull off, we should keep this fundamental question of expertise always in view.

Let’s overstate this a little: if we can’t guarantee that every student who wishes to, regardless of IQ, can actually succeed at a subject as famously vexing as math, why start a school in the first place? What right do we have to claim to teach the “higher level” skills (creativity, empathy, &c.) if we can’t iron out something as straightforward as math?

To be perfectly clear: I don’t doubt that some people’s brains are better attuned than others’ to learn math. (Years ago, I did — I held, almost as a matter of dogma, that people were born as blank slates, cognitively equal. Then I started [1] reading summaries of twin studies, and [2] actually teaching math.Genes matter. But do they limit?

We usually approach this sort of question through the old “nature/nurture” dichotomy. But as a chorus of cognitive scientists have been pointing out, this framework isn’t helpful — mental traits (e.g. mathematical brilliance, or mathematical stupidity) arise through the dynamic interplay of genes and culture. As David Shenk writes in The Genius in All of Us:

Contrary to what we’ve been taught, genes do not determine physical and character traits on their own. Rather, they interact with the environment in a dynamic, ongoing process that produces and continually refines an individual. (p. 13)

So: can we build a school that makes it easy for all kids to understand everything in the math curriculum? Can we make it boringly normal for even the kids who stink at math to brilliantly succeed?