Are some of us "math people" and some just aren't??
“I’m just not a math person!” is an all too common phrase proclaimed by many adults. You tend to hear this when someone is stuck on an everyday math problem, and some embarrassment has crept in. When adults say this so frequently, it can slowly get soaked up by the younger crowd and start to sound normal, and like an easy escape as something to say to avoid real world math or problem solving.
Here’s the real deal: It’s just not true- there’s no such thing as not a math person! There’s psychology and neuroscience to prove it!
What’s worse is the harmful effects these statements can have on children’s view of math. As adults we have so much influence in their mindset. Think about it: how often do you hear ‘I’m just not a science person!’ or “I’m just not a reading person!’?
It is unfortunately much more common to hate on math. But there’s good news, too! We can help to put an end to this myth! As math teachers, we have both the opportunity and the responsibility to help our students form positive math opinions. It’s all about mindset!
Why It’s Incorrect
Psychologist Patricia Linehan, from Purdue University writes, ”A body of research on conceptions of ability has shown two orientations toward ability. Students with an Incremental orientation believe ability (intelligence) to be malleable, a quality that increases with effort. Students with an Entity orientation believe ability to be nonmalleable, a fixed quality of self that does not increase with effort.”
Basically, some students believe their intelligence increases with their effort, and some students believe it’s all in their genes. It is common for individuals to believe their math ability is strictly genetic, or nonmalleable.
There were two studies done with large experimental and control groups of 7th graders in math; the students who believed intelligence can grow with effort received much higher grades.
Evidently, convincing students that they could make themselves smarter by hard work led them to work harder and get higher grades.
Neuroscience to Back it Up
According to KQED, Neuroscientists did MRI scans of students taking math tests and saw that when a student made a mistake a synapse fired, even if the student wasn’t aware of the mistake. Then if the student recognizes their mistake, a second synapse is fired. This leads to creating new brain pathways.
With this and other studies, we have found that the brain has the ability to grow and shrink; intelligence is not fixed.
A study focusing on cognitive tutoring students with Math Learning Disabilities (MLD) showed promising results. MLD students received 1:1 cognitive tutoring for eight weeks. Prior to the study, functional brain mechanisms showed children with MLD had very different brain patterns when learning math than their peers. This was not the case after the effective intervention, however. The study proves that brains have the ability to grow in math ability.
Why the Myth is Harmful
Adults, especially parents and teachers, have a profound influence in any subject. However, since math tends to get a reputation for being difficult, adults’ words and actions centering around math are especially important.
Comments such as, “I’m just bad at math!” or “I’m not a math person.”, etc. are misleading and perpetuate a dangerous rhetoric. Children hear them, and over time they believe it’s true.
What We Can Do
To expose this myth, there are a few things we need to do:
1. Help Students Develop a Growth Mindset
Chances are, you probably know a lot about this topic. In case you don’t, here’s a quick refresher: People who have a growth mindset believe that success is based on learning and hard work.
Opposite to this idea is a “fixed mindset”, or the mindset that an outcome cannot be changed.
Edutopia gives some ideas on how to encourage a growth mindset, but says you should really focus on feedback. When we praise students for how clever or "smart" they are, we might actually be encouraging them to develop a fixed mindset. On the other hand, if we praise students for the hard work and the process that they’ve engaged in, then that helps to develop a growth potential.
2. Educate Parents
To help form completely positive math opinions, we need to make sure everyone in our students’ lives is on the same page. Just as we need to understand that intelligence isn’t fixed, it is also our responsibility to educate the parents of our students in this.
Meet the Teacher Night or Parent-teacher conferences may be a good time to talk to parents about the importance of instilling a positive outlook on mathematics and encouraging a growth mindset.
We need to help parents realize they shouldn’t discourage their child from making any mistakes, and should encourage perseverance in challenging situations.
3. Make Math Fun, Accessible, and Engaging at EVERY Level
For students of any age, making math approachable is the proactive way to tackle the rumor. Once students have fun and, even better, realize they are having fun in math class, then developing a positive opinion and developing confidence in math just comes naturally!
If you’re searching for an easy way to make math class more enjoyable and accessible for everyone, don't miss taking a quick peek to check out the creative resources available here!
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