“You’re too young to be bad at this….”

A teacher asked me to bring pentominoes to her class, for they were reading a book that involved a character who walked around with pentominoes in his pocket. As one of the students was working on arranging the 12 pentominoes into the shape of a rectangle, he sighed under his breath and commented, “man, I really stink at this….”

Whenever students tell me they are not good at something, I immediately remind them that while a lot of mathematics is tricky and challenging, it can also be mastered through practice. This has led me to change my language: I never tell them they don’t understand something; it is always, “you don’t understand this yet.” I find the power of “yet” to be immediate and optimistic: it conveys the idea that they will eventually understand, and just because it is not immediate does not mean it will never arrive.

To this student, I replied, “You just started working on this like, what, 5 minutes ago? How can you tell whether you’re no good at this?”

The student shook his shoulders, and his frustration continued.

“I am really no good at this!” he complained.

“You can’t tell yet whether you’re not good at this. Give it a lot more time.”

“How long?”

“Well, to really know if you’re not good at something takes a long time. Usually 10 or 20 years…”

“What? How can that be?”

“Because, the real test of whether you’re no good at something is to work at it for years and years and to see no improvement. That’s the only way to know that you’re no good at something.”


“Basically, you’re too young to stink at something. You’ll need to spend a lot more time on this to really know if you’re no good at it.”

About rmberkman

This blog is the sole musings of one Robert M. Berkman, an educator who has taught math, science and technology for the past 30 years in New York. You can react to all his posts by emailing him at rants@bltm.com.
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