The other day, my 7-year-old son wrote me a note. It read ‘Things that I really don’t like – Math!’
Frankly, I was a bit surprised. He seemed to enjoy doing math at home (granted, we were adding and subtracting with M&Ms and Skittles) and seemed to have an aptitude for it. After all, my husband works in finance and I work for a education technology company specializing in math software!
We are careful not to express math anxiety and often discuss the beauty of math with our son (read how parents’ anxiety about math can impact their children’s success in math).
The possibility that our son would dislike math never even crossed my mind. What if he started categorizing himself as a non-math person? What if this leads to 10+ years of battles with our son about doing math?
Growth vs fixed mindset
Last fall, I wrote a blog on Getting Students to Believe They Can Be Math People, which noted that the biggest difference between ‘math people’ and ‘non-math people’ is mindset. ‘Math people’ believe that intelligence is malleable – that they have the power to advance and improve their own intelligence. This is also called the growth mindset. Our brains work differently when we believe in ourselves and believe we are capable of doing math. The fixed mindset, on the other hand, is the belief that intelligence is fixed. You’re either born a math person or you’re not.
Carol Dweck, Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, has done extensive research on this topic and US News & World Report published an article entitled “Fostering Growth Mindset is Key to Teaching STEM.” I became very interested in this topic and set out to learn more at NCTM.
Growth mindset is not just for STEM
Do your students participate in sports? Are they dancers, cheerleaders, musicians, and chess masters? Do you have students going to football practice in the rain, students who put in hours of extra practice so they can be better athletes, pianists, and dancers? What’s striking is that students have a growth mindset when it comes to many other aspects of their life. Otherwise, why would they put in the hours of practice? Why is it, then, that when it comes to math, many students have a fixed mindset?
This question was addressed in the “Changing the Math Mindset for Struggling Learners and Their Teachers” session. A teacher shared a story of how she demonstrated her growth mindset by pledging to do many more push-ups by end of the year than the beginning of the year. The basketball team loved this, of course, and a picture of her doing push-ups was shared widely around the school. She went out of her comfort zone and encouraged the basketball players in her math class to do the same… with math.
Why not share with your class how you’re employing the growth mindset? Are you training for a race? Working on perfecting that cake recipe? Show your students that you’re willing to get out of your comfort zone and encourage them to do the same.
It’s okay to make mistakes!
One of the many things I like about math is that it’s objective. There’s a right and a wrong answer. There’s also beauty in the fact that there are multiple routes to the final destination and multiple ways of solving a problem. Sometimes we make a mistake but in doing so, we learn other ways of thinking about and solving the problem.
Jo Boaler, Professor of Mathematics Education at Stanford University and co-founder YouCubed, noted in her keynote that our brain benefits most when we are struggling from a challenge. She spoke of how when we make mistakes, our brains fire more synapses. She reiterated the need for teachers to help students believe that their brains can grow and change and that when we believe in ourselves, our brains work differently. It’s about learning from your mistakes and applying what you’ve learned in the future. In doing so, you learn to look at problems in different ways. Don’t just celebrate the answer – celebrate the struggles as well. Encourage your students to discuss their thought processes out loud so they can learn from each other.
I tried baking a white coconut cake and failed miserably. I tried until I ran out of ingredients! I haven’t given up though – I sought out advice on what I can do differently and changed my methods each time. This is growth mindset at work. Effort is necessary but not sufficient; learning from mistakes and making adjustments is crucial to the growth mindset.
So back to my son…
After attending a few sessions at NCTM, I realized I was doing many things incorrectly with my son. For example, I can’t tell you how many times my husband and I reassured our son that he is smart. What we didn’t realize was that we were encouraging a fixed mindset. When he was doing simple math, he was good at it and excelling. But as soon as things started to get harder and he wasn’t getting it all correct, he became reluctant to even try because then it must mean he’s not smart, right? In addition, we were focused on getting to the right answer, but not spending enough time helping him look at problems in different ways. Clearly, there is much room for improvement! But at least now I know what I was doing wrong and know what I need to be doing differently.
Helping students believe that they are capable doing math is critical. It opens up possibilities that one can grow to do math (and gasp, even like math!) with hard work. However, it is also important to note that hard work is not sufficient. Carol Dweck wrote an excellent article for EdWeek (“Carol Dweck Revisits the Growth Mindset”) discussing some misconceptions of the growth mindset and how teachers can employ the growth mindset in their math classrooms. Share how you’ve employed the growth mindset in your classroom on Twitter @Knowre.