“I’m just not good at math.”
“I’m not a math person.”
“I wasn’t born with the math gene.”
Unfortunately, as a math educator, these phrases are all too familiar to me. Kids go through school and life being bombarded with messages that imply some people are good at math and some people aren’t.
For some of us, math just “clicks.” But what if it doesn’t “click” for you right away? Well, you might as well give up. You’re just not a math person. The problem with these messages, whether stated or implied, is that they’re false.
This “cultural baggage” we have towards math is not based on truth about how our brains are wired. It’s based on parents and teachers' years of misunderstanding or hating math and passing these negative attitudes and beliefs onto their children.
However, the great news is more and more research is proving these messages false as we learn how our brains work and how math teaching styles can impact mindset and achievement.
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Why Having a Growth Mindset Towards Math is so Important?
The more researchers study and adjust how teachers think about math and how it’s taught, the more evidence shows a link between a growth mindset and math success.
We all want kids to feel confident and successful as they learn math. Kids who have a growth mindset about their math abilities perform better on standardized tests and are more engaged in the classroom.
In her research article, Carol Dweck, “Mindsets and Math/Science Achievement,” delves deep into a variety of research studies that support this correlation. And although we see evidence for the advantages of a growth mindset, she also states,
“Students who have a fixed mindset but who are well prepared and do not encounter difficulty can do just fine. However, when they encounter challenges or obstacles they may then be at a disadvantage.”
And that’s precisely the problem. At one point or another, for every single one of us, math will become hard. For some, this might be in second grade when facing subtraction with regrouping. For others, it might not become hard until Calculus.
Every child will face math obstacles at some point, and being prepared to face them with a growth mindset and a healthy attitude toward mathematics will give them the stamina to persevere and overcome the challenge.
1. Teach Kids About the Brain’s Ability to Grow
If necessary, first we need to change how kids view math and their math abilities. There are a lot of children who feel they are never going to be good at math, no matter how hard they try.
By showing them how our brains work, we give them hope that their brain can grow and change, as they continue to study and explore mathematics.
Here are some suggested activities:
- For younger children, show fun YouTube videos like the Neuron Song to teach them about neuroplasticity.
- For older children, show this brief clip from the BBC documentary ‘The Human Body’, which demonstrates how establishing new neural pathways between brain cells is like building a bridge to cross a ravine.
2. Model and Praise Mistakes as Opportunities for Brain Growth
Another important aspect of developing a growth mindset is to view mistakes positively.
Kids need to understand our brains learn more when we make mistakes. If we solve all the math homework problems correctly, we haven’t learned anything without any struggle. We haven’t stretched or strengthened our brains at all.
According to Jo Boaler, in her book, Mathematical Mindsets, our brain responds to mistakes in one of two ways. First, through an ERN response, which is increased activity in our brain, which happens when there’s “a conflict between a correct response and an error.”
The second is a Pe response, which occurs when the brain is consciously aware a mistake has been made. Amazingly, our brains spark and grow with an ERN response. We can stretch and grow our brain by making mistakes, even if we don’t realize it or work to correct it. How incredibly empowering it is to know this!
To help kids see and value their mistakes, we can help them see mistakes for what they are: opportunities for brain growth.
Here are some suggested activities:
- Model mistakes in front of kids. Show them that you make mistakes too, and it’s a good thing.
- Analyze mistakes together to see what and how we learn from them. A great example for classroom teachers is to incorporate “my favorite no”, which allows the whole class to discuss mistakes together and find the value in them.
- Read together Mistakes That Worked by Charlotte Foltz Jones.
- Create a mistake-welcoming home or classroom by decorating with inspiring posters and graphics.
Be sure to check out The Big Life Journal - Daily Edition (ages 5-11). This science-based journal helps children grow resilient, confident, and emotionally healthy. The daily activities inside the journal help your child focus on encouraging, self-loving thoughts and wire their brain for growth mindset, resilience, confidence, gratitude, kindness, and self-love.
3. Provide Rich, Open-Ended Math Tasks
Although changing kids' attitudes towards math and the language they use is important, no real change or progress will be made if math continues to be taught the same way.
Because math is often taught as a closed, fixed subject with one goal - get the right answer - kids are often afraid to make mistakes because it feels like a failure. Their only thought is to find that one correct solution, and when they don’t, they shut down and quit.
But the truth is math is about so much more than getting the right answer. It’s about exploring big ideas, making connections, and learning to be creative problem-solvers.
Instead of focusing on memorizing facts, or replicating mathematical procedures, parents and teachers need to provide rich and meaningful tasks that challenge kids to think outside the box.
What does this look like? Well, as Jo Boaler says, meaningful math tasks combine the 5C’s: curiosity, connection making, challenge, creativity, and collaboration.
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When presented with these types of tasks, kids are going to be more excited about math and more engaged in learning.
Challenging kids to actually think about what they’re doing and WHY it works is more productive than merely completing 20 problems from a textbook.
Here are some suggested activities:
- Try out a variety of tasks from YouCubed with your kids. These tasks are completed by kids all over the world and spark a deeper love of math. Learn more about the week of inspirational math here.
- Take traditional, closed problems and turn them into rich challenges. For example, your kids might be working on the problem, 18 x 5. This could be a straightforward problem with a single solution. But what if instead, you asked kids to solve it two different ways? Or to give a visual proof of their solution and explain their answer?
- Use another engaging challenge from Boaler is the “four 4’s” task. This challenge asks kids (or parents and teachers) to find all the numbers from 1-20 using 4 fours and any mathematical operation. For example, 4 + 4 + 4 + 4 = 16, 4 + 4 - 4 + 4 = 8, etc. After some basic operations, this challenge becomes a lot more difficult and engaging!
- Raise the bar for kids who are finished with a given problem or task. One easy way to do this is to challenge them to create their own problem. Ask them to write a new similar question, but more difficult. This allows kids the chance to be creative and gets them excited to try and challenge their peers.
4. Remove an Emphasis on Speed
As I’ve already mentioned, kids often have the impression that math is about one thing and one thing only: getting the right answer quickly. But if learning and teaching math was only about getting the right answer, there would be no point in it, because calculators can do that work for us.
Evidence shows timed math tests increase kids’ anxiety and hatred of math. The pressure of finishing within a time limit can be so stressful, some kids develop severe math anxiety, which stays with them all their lives.
So instead of focusing on speed, focus on the process.
Here are some suggested activities:
- Teach kids the strategies they use, as well as how they talk about big mathematical ideas, are more important than the final answer. And tell them the world’s leading mathematicians often spend years focusing on ONE problem, proof or idea.
- If you’re a classroom teacher, you can assign fewer math problems. When kids see a worksheet or assignment with 20 or 30 problems, they may be more inclined to find a way to get through it all quickly. But if instead you assign fewer problems and make sure they justify their answers or look for multiple solutions, they’re more likely to slow down and think about the process.
- Replace a set of practice problems with reflective questions such as, “What was a big idea we learned about today?” or “What was something you struggled with today?” or “What mistake did you learn from today?” [source]
5. Be Mindful of Your Own Attitude Towards Math
Lastly, and probably most importantly, I want to encourage you to be especially mindful of your own views of math and the language you use to talk about it in front of your kids. Kids are watching and listening and learning from our example (whether we’re aware of it or not) and even subtle fixed mindset messages will come across to kids.
Recently, authors of one research study concluded that mindset intervention is ineffective and a waste of money in math education. The problem with their research, however, is it ignores a key component to successful mindset intervention: the changes of a teacher and math teaching.
If the only effort made is a change in language, such as using words like “yet” or “mistakes help our brain grow,” but the teacher’s mindset and teaching style don’t change, there will be no real change in kids.
Instead, we have to see a trickle-down effect: it begins with parents and teachers changing their mindset towards math. This in turn affects how we talk about and present math to kids. This then changes kids’ mindsets from fixed to growth and begins to affect their achievement in math class and on standardized tests.
Here are some suggestions for you:
- Continue to learn and study the importance and impact of a growth mindset for yourself. This will not only help you to develop a growth mindset towards math but will be a powerful example to your kids as you show them how to persevere.
- Spend time together as a family discussing some of the open math tasks shared above. You can learn new strategies together and have fun discussing big ideas. You’ll be spending quality time together and engaging in meaningful math learning at the same time! It’s a win-win.
- If you’re concerned about your own mindset towards math, complete the free course from Jo Boaler. You may also like this free mini course for teachers on creating rich math tasks (even if you’re not a teacher).
- Follow the free 4-week guide on How To Teach Growth Mindset to Children, it provides specific examples of how to model growth mindset and teach it to your children.
Given time and intentionality, even the most fixed mindsets towards math can be turned around, and the most struggling students can succeed, thrive and will love exploring mathematical ideas.
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