Expert Corner: If I only had a [math] brain

How often have you heard someone say, “I’m just not good at math” or “He’s just not a numbers person?” This is a myth, and one that educators need to help dispel. Having or not having a math brain has been resoundingly disproved by research; yet many students (and parents and teachers) believe this.

Research by Carol Dweck and others talks about “growth” versus “fixed” mindsets—that people with a growth mindset believe they can learn and develop their intelligence through dedication and hard work, while fixed mindset people believe that intelligence is static. Students’ beliefs about intelligence and learning have an impact on: motivation, academic behaviors (seeking help, studying), responses to challenges and setbacks, and academic achievement.

So, how do we foster a growth mindset in the math classroom? Changing attitudes from “mistakes mean I’m a failure” to “I will persevere to be successful” is not an overnight venture. Here are some steps we can all take:

  • Educate students, teachers, parents, administrators on how the brain works. According to the research, when learning happens, a synapse fires. A synapse is like an electric current in the brain. If you learn something deeply, the synapse turns into a permanent pathway. Think of it as a footprint in the sand. The more you keep walking in the same spot, the firmer the imprint, making the brain grow. Otherwise, the footprint gets washed away.
  • Give teachers, parents, administrators and—most importantly—students, strategies to apply a growth mindset. Praise effort, struggle and perseverance. Praise the use of new strategies. Use the word YET: “You are not quite there … yet. With more practice, you will be.” When a student makes a mistake, be careful not to label that student as a result of his/her failure. Not knowing is not failure. It’s the first step to understanding.
  • Ask the question: “Does that answer make sense?” Ask this whether the student is correct or incorrect. Math is actually about being creative, visualizing problems and solutions, recognizing patterns, and connecting to the real world. By asking “does this make sense,” you allow students to critique methods and open up a math conversation.
  • Emphasize learning conceptually and improvement over learning procedurally or memorization. Learning conceptually helps the learning go into long-term memory. Remember, however, that effort is not good enough and does not warrant praise by itself. Developing and trying different strategies to solve a problem is what earns praise. Instead of exclaiming, “Nice job—good effort!” say things like, “Good perseverance in trying a new strategy. It paid off.” On the other end of the spectrum, a child who consistently gets good marks on tests should be asked, “Did you learn anything new in this unit?” If the answer is no, then teacher may want to differentiate and offer an opportunity for that student to go deeper with the content.
  • Ask “Why do you think that?” The answers and argumentation need to come from the student. Let the kids explain it. By refusing to be the answer key, it invites mathematical debate.
  • Play with the math. It gives the gift of ownership!

How Reflex and Gizmos can help cultivate a growth mindset in the math classroom

Math fact fluency is the quick and effortless automatic recall of basic math facts. When students achieve automaticity with these facts, they can retrieve them from long-term memory without conscious effort or attention, making it easier for them to concentrate on, and master, new and higher math concepts.

Game-based Reflex helps students develop math fact fluency in a highly adaptive and individualized environment so that students of all ability levels enjoy early and ongoing success. Reflex coaches students in fact families and rewards them for their progress. Giving students math fact fluency sets the stage for a growth mindset and helps to build confidence when trying new math tasks. Students are able to learn at their own pace. They become willing to take risks in math class and can make mistakes in a safe environment.

Gizmos are interactive online simulations in math and science for grades 3-12. With more than 400 in the library, they build content conceptual understanding by allowing students to manipulate variables, set up their own “what-ifs,” and self-discover. The online environment encourages experimentation and perseverance. Students manipulate variables, take formative assessments, get immediate feedback, and can fail in a safe environment. Great ingredients for a growth mindset!

In closing, here is some practical advice that we can all use in our classrooms:

  • Recognize that we are all a mixture of fixed and growth mindsets. Educate yourself and your students to recognize “fixed mindset” triggers—fear and anxiety. Be self-aware when thoughts of “I’m not good at this” or “I give up” come to mind. When you recognize a fixed mindset in your students, react with encouragement.
  • Use appropriate language to praise. Be careful not to say, “You’re smart.” Try not to praise intelligence or abilities but rather the process, strategy and significant effort.
  • Allow students to reflect on their performance. Ask them to give you two words that describe how they feel about their achievements on this assessment/project/assignment. Ask if they think their grade matches their effort level, and why or why not.
  • Set up positive norms in math class. Your mantra should be: Everyone can learn math to the highest levels. Mistakes are valuable. Questions are really important. Use your creativity to ask, “Does this make sense?”
  • Connect the math to real-world problems. Allow the students to struggle with the task and have the opportunity for mathematical conversation and debate.
  • Avoid saying “Yes/Correct” or “No/Incorrect.” Both answers cut a student off from further thinking. Instead, ask “Why do you think that?” or “How did you come up with that?”

A teacher’s job is not to make work easy. If we are not challenged, we do not make mistakes. If we do not make mistakes, we do not grow. Remember, a growth mindset is a journey!

Kathleen Kaplan teaches math in Loudoun County Public Schools in Virginia. With a M.Ed. in foster a growth mindset in your math classroomSecondary Math Education, she has taught all levels of high school math. She has served on curriculum committees, assessment committees and technology committees.  She was previously a Regional Manager for Professional Development at ExploreLearning, where she had the opportunity to work with teachers across the United States in both math and science.  Her passion is making sure all students have equal opportunity to learn and grow.