Many students become convinced somewhere along the line that they are “bad at math,” or that their brain isn’t wired for math. In some cases it is just a matter of finding the subject uninteresting. But, at its worst, this self-definition can have deep impacts on a student’s ability to achieve. Certainly, skills in all areas differ from person to person—-very few of us are going to win a Fields Medal—-but how much truth is there to the idea that otherwise talented students are inherently “bad at math?” Well, it turns out that the typical student is about as bad at math as they are willing to be.
Of course, students vary widely in their math aptitude, including grades in their math courses and scores on their standardized tests. Surely, that implies something about math ability, but research is showing math aptitude may have a lot more to do with mindset than it does skill at putting numbers together. Carol Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford, has made her life’s work the study of motivation and development. She believes that students, and people generally, can be placed into two broad groups based on where they think ability comes from. The fixed mindset people, about half the population, think that traits such as mathematical ability are basically set in stone since birth. On the other hand, people with a growth mindset understand that hard work will pay off and that making mistakes is all part of the process. “Growers” find reward in working hard to understand or accomplish something, and they do not register mistakes or setbacks as failures. Rather than simply memorizing everything they can in the hopes that they may appear smart, a grower will keep trying to understand. With this mindset, there really is no such thing failure.
So, how can a student become a grower and get rid of the narrative that he or she is “bad at math?”
The fixed mindset, this idea that one is born with a certain ability or not, is unfortunately encouraged in many of us from childhood. Kids who pick up math a bit more quickly than others are singled out as the “smart” ones, and the others around them get the message that this means they are not. Further, as students move into high school, the consequences of making mistakes grow steeper and steeper—grades and test scores all depend on getting things right. According to another Stanford Professor, Jo Boaler, who specializes in Math Education, we can retrain ourselves out of the fixed mindset, but the task requires two things: rewards for hard work (instead of innate ability) and having room to make mistakes.
As a student, you can cultivate your own growth mindset by taking pride in how much time and effort you have put in to understanding concepts like geometry or complicated algebra. It also means integrating the idea that getting a question wrong is not a failure, and not something to be frustrated with, rather it is a real opportunity for you to learn exactly how the concept works and master the concept.
Take the time to use every incorrect math problem as a stepping stone to understand. Did your algebra become disorganized? Did you incorrectly apply an equation? Did you forget to distribute the negative? You will often find that you did not get a math problem wrong because you are fundamentally “bad at math,” but you some small error or lack of knowledge prevented you from arriving at the solution. Fill in those gaps and your math “problems” will disappear one by one. This will mean a little more frustration and a lot more homework, but perseverance not only pays off, it might just rewire your brain.