Skip To Main Content


Math and Mindset

Many of you can remember going through your school experience and coming to a point when you figured out whether you were “good” or “bad” at math. Perhaps it was early on in elementary school when you were learning your times tables. Or perhaps it was in high school when you got to calculus, began to struggle, and decided you were not a “math person.”

Surprisingly, adults label themselves as “bad at math” quite frequently. Just listen next time you’re at a restaurant when the check comes, or when talking you’re talking with a friend about helping your kids with their homework. Rarely do you hear people say, “I’ve never been good at reading.” But with math, people have no trouble giving themselves such labels. What is behind all of this?

Research by Carol Dweck and Jo Boaler, both out of Stanford University, focuses on this topic. Dweck explores the impact of “growth” versus “fixed’ mindsets. A growth mindset is the belief that intellectual abilities can be developed through practice and instruction. People with a growth mindset believe they can improve upon their abilities through hard work. On the other hand, those with a fixed mindset believe that people have differing levels of ability and nothing can be done to change them. The research shows that intelligence can be altered through training and hard work. Unfortunately, many of us grew up in environments where labels were put on us as mathematicians very early on, which led to a fixed mindset rather than encouraging a stance towards growth. You can learn more about Carol Dweck’s work by watching this video:

Jo Boaler consistently refers to Dweck’s research on mindset in her body of work related specifically to math.

Boaler speaks about the idea of a “math person” or a “math gene” as a primary reason for much of math failure. She says, “When kids get the idea that ‘they aren’t math people,’ they start a downward trajectory, and their career options shrink immediately and substantially. There is also the common idea of a wall in math: People learn math until they hit a wall where they just can’t keep up. That wall may be trigonometry, and it may be advanced calculus, and it may be calculating a tip. In no other discipline but math are people so given to thinking, instead of 'I need to practice,' just 'Well, I’m not good.'” (100 Percent is Overrated, Hamblin, June 30, 2015).

For these reasons, it is essential that as educators and parents we work together to help our students establish a growth mindset. There are three simple ways we can do this:

  1. Praise effort, rather than ability. Say, “You worked so hard on this!” rather than, “You are so smart.” Don’t just focus on a student’s score, discuss the process they went through to arrive at the final product.
  2. Celebrate and praise mistakes. According to the research, mistakes grow your brain. When we take this stance, children can more readily learn from mistakes rather than interpreting them as a sign that they failed. We want children to see that, as adults, we value challenging work consisting of mistakes over easy, low effort success. Here are some things we can say to convey this:
    • “Let’s do something we can learn from. Not something easy or boring.”
    • “This is hard. This is what I call fun!”
    • “Who had a fabulous struggle today? Let’s share what we struggled with and what we learned from it.”
    • “Get ready for a terrific struggle! Are you ready? Here we go.”
    • “Who thinks they made a really interesting mistake?”
  3. Explicitly teach students about a growth mindset. Use the terminology with them and consistently remind them that the brain is like a muscle that can get stronger the more it is exercised. Encourage students to continue learning and working hard, and that this will lead to improvement.