Why a Fixed Mindset in Math is Your Worst Enemy

[fa icon="calendar"] August 18, 2016 at 3:16 PM / by Admin



Math ability isn’t written on a person’s genes, in opposition to the popularly held idea. In spite of major evidence to the contrary, the reoccurring notion in many parts of the world is that some people are born with superb math ability, while others don’t have much at all.

 Education experts have argued that the idea of predetermined math ability can be outright harmful to people who might otherwise succeed in it, if only they persisted.
The Atlantic published an article in late October 2013 called “The Myth of ‘I’m Bad at Math” written by Miles Kimbal and Noah Smith — two long-time educators. Basically, Kimbal and Smith say the whole idea that some people are just not math people is hooey.
They admit elite mathematicians do have some natural genetic ability — think the difference between being Mozart and being able to bang out a passable “Chopsticks” on the piano. But for the basic stuff, genetics don’t come into the equation at all.
For high-school math, inborn talent's much less important than hard work, preparation & self-confidence

The vicious cycle that dictates math ability

The authors, who have taught math for the majority of their careers, have seen a pattern emerge among their students. In the first few math classes, students arrive at different levels of math preparedness — some students have had a lot of parental help in advance of class, and some have not.
The kids who are well prepared ace the first few tests, and the ones who aren’t as prepared only get so-so grades (drawing on the limited instruction they’ve received in the class so far).
Because the B students don’t realize the A students had extra help, they assume the A students have an edge — a genetic knack for mathematics. And because they assume they themselves don’t have an inborn math ability, they expend less effort in math class; and their future performance is affected accordingly.
The A students don’t realize the B students haven’t had as much preparation, and they assume their own higher math scores are because of natural ability. This causes them to view themselves as math people and double down on their study efforts, resulting in excellence in future math classes.
This is the cycle, and the authors of this article say it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. And falling further and further behind in math can harm a person’s prospects for a lifetime.

Students are taught that it’s okay to say “I’m not a math person”

When students are getting help from their parents with math homework, it’s not uncommon for the student to hear “I’m no good at math” or “I’m not a math person.”  Sometimes students might even hear this from their teacher. When students hear such phrases from trusted adults, they believe it.
The implications of learning this kind of language is huge. Students begin to think that their math ability has already been decided for them - I’m not a math person, and I’ll never be one.
This type of fixed mindset can be very damaging to young learners. Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford University, found that a student’s perception of their ability hugely impacts their achievement. When students have already determined that their low ability in math is an inherent trait, the lose hope and begin to think that it can’t be changed!
When you compound a fixed mindset with the difference in preparedness from students A and B in the example above, we get a positive feedback loop that is a runaway train! Poorly performing students become discouraged, make less effort to improve as a result, and thus fall behind even further.

The rise of STEM and the importance of math ability

One of the most significant currents of thought in education and policy circles these days concerns the rise of the so-called STEM fields — science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The majority of high-paying jobs in the modern economy are in one of these four fields. Of these, mathematics is probably the master discipline.
Writers Miles Kimbal and Noah Smith say people who think they’re bad at math are short-changing themselves.
“Too many Americans go through life terrified of equations and mathematical symbols. We think what many of them are afraid of is ‘proving’ themselves to be genetically inferior by failing to instantly comprehend the equations,” they write.
“Math skills are increasingly important for getting good jobs these days — so believing you can’t learn math is especially self-destructive.”

Good news: Math ability CAN be for everyone

This is your brain on math.This idea, that math ability isn’t an inherent trait given to students at birth, is being given a huge focus in schools these days.  Students are being taught that instead of saying, “I don’t understand this question,” they should be saying “I don’t understand this question yet. It’s a subtle difference, but one that makes all the difference.

This subtle difference is called the growth mindset, the polar opposite to a fixed mindset. With a growth mindset, students understand that their abilities can be nurtured and developed. They begin to understand that their minds are malleable and that persistence, intelligence, and motivation can all be learnt.  These attitudes do wonders for a learning child.

Carol Dweck, the psychologist behind this change in thinking, has studied people across subjects and grade levels and has found time and again that having a growth mindset has a direct impact on a student's achievement.

The bottom line is — the popular attitude needs to change. People must realize math ability is just like literacy — virtually anyone, regardless of genetic makeup or social background, can succeed at it. The difference between people who are great at math and people who struggle with it is the amount of time, effort, practice, patience, and confidence they invest in it.


How can we better support children who are not confident in their math abilities and change the "I'm not a math person." mentality?


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Topics: Fixed Mindset, Growth Mindset, Math Ability, Math Education

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