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The Myth of the Math Person

“Math is hard.”

“I have never been good at math.”

“I’m just not a math person.”

These statements are common. People of all ages, including the youngest students, buy into the “math person” myth. However, researchers and psychologists have learned that math ability or general intelligence is not the problem. Traditional math instruction simply does not work for everyone. However, when teachers create a growth mindset classroom, they are more likely to reach every kind of learner and dispel the “math person” myth.

What Is Growth Mindset?

According to Katrina Schwartz, writing for Mind/Shift, a staff member at Stanford University reported that her seven-year-old does not like math; he says that “Math is too much answering and not enough learning.” This childlike response is a simple demonstration of Carol Dweck’s “fixed mindset” and “growth mindset.”

Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford University, argues that students with a fixed mindset are convinced that their intelligence predicts how well they will perform in math. If they are stuck on a problem, they assume they are not smart enough to continue and just give up. This mindset can even influence “gifted” students, who may panic when they cannot solve a problem, afraid that they may no longer be “smart.”

On the other hand, students with a growth mindset believe that the brain gets stronger with practice. They understand that perseverance leads to success, even if they must make mistakes or experience failure along the way.

Growth Mindset in the Classroom

Teachers who model a growth mindset in the classroom plan carefully to elicit discussions about problems with multiple solutions. Take, for example, the seven-year-old who does not like math. He knows that, in his classroom, a correct answer is more important than how he solved the problem. Teachers in growth mindset classrooms are more interested in thinking. They present visual and open-ended problems. Then they ask students to work in groups to find multiple paths to the solution.

These growth mindset teachers also remove the time element from problem-solving. Rewarding students who answer quickly reinforces a fixed mindset. Students who solve the problem correctly, but not as quickly as their peers — whom the teacher never calls upon to answer questions — often lose heart. In addition, working against the clock can trigger test anxiety; failure to finish within an allotted time frame instills a sense of incompetence.

Growth mindset in the classroom is a powerful tool to combat the “not a math person” myth, but there can be pitfalls. Teachers who promote growth mindset have to reach beyond encouragement. They must be more than cheerleaders. Teachers and parents must also be ready to offer tangible suggestions. Students, after all, are still learning. They need carefully timed reminders of thinking strategies and occasional hands-on help. Appropriate support will prevent feelings of incompetence in students who are doing the best they can.

The Element of Creativity

One of the key benefits of a growth mindset classroom is the influence of creativity in math. Teachers encourage students to draw pictures, work with manipulatives and use their imaginations when solving complex problems. When students see math as more than numbers, they tend to see and use math principles in other areas, like music, art, history and science.

A classroom poster developed by Jo Boaler for Stanford University’s offers the following standards for a growth mindset math class:

  • Everyone can learn math to the highest levels.
  • Mistakes are valuable.
  • Questions are really important.
  • Math is about creativity and making sense.
  • Math is about connections and communicating.
  • Depth is much more important than speed.
  • Math class is about learning, not performing.

Students in growth mindset classrooms experience math in a new and positive way, and they can find success by persevering in the face of mistakes and failures. They will most likely never have to say, “I guess I’m just not a math person.”

Learn more about the University of Texas at Arlington online Master of Education in Curriculum and Instruction — Mathematics Education program.


KQED: ‘Not a Math Person': How to Remove Obstacles to Learning Math

Youcubed: Growth Mindset

EdSource: There’s more to a ‘growth mindset’ than assuming you have it

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