Shifting identities

During my middle- and high-school years, I was what I called a “two-school kid”: I attended a large public high school in the mornings, and after lunch I bused or drove across town to a learning center called the Center for the Arts and Sciences (CAS). Attendance at the CAS required choosing a specialization. Each student spent a full morning or a full afternoon in classes in language arts, global studies, 2D or 3D visual arts, voice and keyboard, dance, theater, or, in my case, math and science. For the most part, this was an amazing experience. I took two semesters of college-level calculus in high school and also got to do some amazing hands-on exploration in science that I have since learned are not at all common in U.S. schools. I don’t have many complaints about my experiences at the CAS. Still, there is one aspect of my time there that bothered me then and still, now and again, bothers me when I think about it now.

Although most CAS students chose their own specialization, some of us still felt… sorted. It often felt like our choices served as ways to separate us. Specialization allowed the time and space to explore topics in great depth, but it also led to some “us” versus “them” mentality. This was particularly pronounced in the relationship between the math/science department and the theater department. I had a few friends — great friends! — in the theater program, but this didn’t mean that I was unaware of the general narrative that math/science students were serious, studious, and nerdy, while theater students were creative, fun-loving free spirits. It wasn’t the oversimplification that bothered me. It was the separation. I didn’t see either of the characterizations as inherently better than the other. It wasn’t that I ever wanted to switch to the theater program and felt like I couldn’t. It was more that sometimes I wanted to be seen as someone who loved theater, creativity, and fun. But as long as I was a math/science student, that wasn’t a persona I was able to put on.

Fast-forward (eep!) 16 years to a few days ago, when I was reading James Gee’s (2013) Good Video Games + Good Learning. In the first chapter of the book, when discussing his idea of affinity spaces, Gee says,

We are never, none of us, one thing all the time. Sure, the world continuously tries to impose rigid identities on us all of the time. But it is our moral obligation — and one necessary for a healthy life — to resist this and to try to create spaces where identities based on shared passions or commitments can predominate. (p. 7)

I was really struck by his first sentence: We are never, none of us, one thing all the time. His point isn’t that we can be more than one thing, which is the argument I usually make about identities. My issue in high school wasn’t that I wanted to be a math/science student or a theater student. It was that I wanted to be both. The multiplicity was what I was focused on. But Gee takes this a step further. Not only can you be more than one thing, but you don’t have to be all of those things all at once and all the time.

This seems like a subtle and maybe obvious point, but it changed my thinking about the identity I’m most interested in from a research perspective: that of being a “math person.” It bothers me greatly the number of students and adults who will outright tell me that they are “not math people.” I think the pervasiveness of this narrative is a reflection of the inflexible way mathematics has always been taught. I often talk about one of my career goals as working toward a world where every K-12 student will say, “I am a math person!”

Most of the self-proclaimed “non-math people,” upon hearing this from me, remain skeptical, despite my passionate narratives about the work of people like Carol Dweck (1999) and Jo Boaler (1989). You just had a bad experience! I say. You are a math person, I swear! They never believe me.

Gee’s (2013) comments have me thinking that there might be a way to make my message more accurate, and therefore believable to even the skeptics. Perhaps people (adults, and younger students) can’t imagine taking on “math person” as an identity to wear all the time. But maybe they can imagine putting on a “math person” hat on occasion. Maybe the fluid nature of identities can help people realize that just about anything — even math — is within their realm of possibilities.

Being a math person doesn’t have to mean fundamentally and permanently changing who are. That’s my new thought for the day.


Boaler, J. (1989). Open and closed mathematics: Student experiences and understandings. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 29(1), 41–62.

Dweck, C. S. (1999). Caution—Praise can be dangerous. American Educator, 23(1), 4–9.

Gee, J. P. (2013). Good Video Games + Good Learning. New York: Peter Lang Publishing.


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