The mythical math gene: 5 ways to build growth mindset

We’ve all likely explored how to externalize our own mindful mindset to students, but let’s be honest: math class is notorious for being the place that fixed mindsets come to ossify. Most of us believe we’re either born doing calculus in the hospital room or, like me, born wondering what people are talking about when they say “X.”

Have you ever wondered why there doesn’t seem to be similar pressure on the journey of reading? As my math department lead says, “It’s amazing how we love to claim our innumeracy, but never our illiteracy.” In an interview with Neil deGrasse Tyson, Richard Dawkins calls this “unwarranted pride at being bad at mathematics.” Ha! When I heard him say this, I made that grimacing face emoji. Guilty!

There is a strange societal pressure to adopt a very binary math identity: all or nothing, amazing or abysmal. What could we accomplish if we accepted that math is not an innate ability but, rather, a personal journey? And what math trauma could adults avoid inadvertently passing on to kiddos?

It starts at home

How did the adults in your life talk about math when you were growing up? Whenever I ask this question to someone who identifies as “not a math person,” I usually get one of two answers:

  1. One caretaker noticeably hated math and couldn’t/wouldn’t help with math homework.
  2. One caretaker was really good at math, yet would accidentally “lose” their child when trying to help.

My math students may not know what instrument their favorite adult played in band or what language they took in high school or if they played a casual sport but, usually, they can tell me (unsolicited!) the math dynamic in their home. Why is that?

Is “shared math trauma” too intense an answer? The TED Talk “Why do people get so anxious about math?” indicates that math anxiety is very real and that 20% of people have to push through it in their studies. That same TED Talk explains that the way parents, other caregivers, and teachers expose students to math shapes their math anxiety.

There is a strange societal pressure to adopt a very binary math identity: all or nothing, amazing or abysmal.

Because I’m a math teacher, I looked for a script to give families on what not to say about math and found an incredible article about how our society knows how to establish a “literary” bedtime routine but can’t foster a love of numbers in our young kiddos (probably because we have baggage with math ourselves). The author, Laura Overdeck, started a nonprofit called Bedtime Math to help give adults the script they need to change the narrative.

But if your kids have outgrown bedtime—or you’re a math teacher who thinks Bedtime Math is a matter outside your jurisdiction—what other options are there to build growth mindset at home, in society, and in math class?

Quick recap: Growth mindset

I know, I know, we all know what “growth mindset” is. But have you seen the With Math I Can video about it?

If I may insert my opinion into my own blog post, I prickle at how emotionally heavy-handed this video is. Had I been the art director, I would have gone in a different direction: fewer watery eyes, more honest conversations. However, the point remains that attitude about math predicts success with math. And everyone—teachers and caregivers and students—can shift their mindset.

When you think of yourself as a math student practicing growth mindset, what do you imagine? A growth mindset in math might feel like:

  • A conviction that no one is “born” with unchangeable math powers
  • Permission to take your time to learn math at your own speed
  • Zero shame when you get something wrong
  • Celebration when you or someone else “gets it”
  • Curiosity outside of the confines of the original question

When you picture what growth mindset is like in a math classroom, what do you see? A growth-minded math classroom might look like:

  • A lot of incorrect responses
  • Low-stakes iteration, with plenty of trying and failing
  • Freedom to go off script with a math exploration
  • Lots of erasing
  • An emphasis on bravery and persistence rather than correctness

Mindset exercises to do for math

As a math teacher with lots of math trauma (and formerly “not a math person”), my chief goal is to make students un-hate math. If they leave my classroom just disliking math less, I’m so proud. Here are a few ways I try to implement growth mindset in my middle school classroom.

1. We (golf) clap for each other

If you ask sixth-graders to clap, it’s usually a free-for-all of hooting, hollering, and immediate teacher regret. But I still want to applaud my students! I teach them a very Ascot Gavotte clap—tiny, fussy, only-our-fingers clapping—and we use it to celebrate a singular moment a student has that isn’t directly linked to a correct answer. “Did you hear how they called it a ‘divisor’ and a ‘dividend’? I’m loving that math speak! Can I get a golf clap?” “That was the best question I’ve heard today. It was clear and useful to the entire class. Can I get a golf clap?”

There is always something to clap for: the way a student organized their notes; the neatness of their math (even if it’s wrong); the way they explained something to their neighbor; the way they advocated for themselves by asking for a sheet of scratch paper. Pick a compliment and golf clap!

2. We sense make on different schedules

I’m a math teacher, which naturally means I know everything, right? Nope! I have moments each year when something that was previously sort of accepted by me as a math rule finally gels. I recently realized why 12% of 50 is the same as 50% of 12, for example. (Hint: Finding percentages is all about multiplying, and because of the commutative property, we’re ultimately multiplying the same stuff!)

When I share a math revelation with my kids, I’m not trying to pander to them. It’s about how I had a breakthrough, full of honest excitement about a light bulb moment, even though I am a math teacher. Then something amazing happens: students start sharing their aha moments, too, even if they were “supposed to get it” a while ago. It normalizes that we understand things on different schedules.

3. We expose what’s under the hood

Kids love explaining how they got their answer. Lately, I’ve noticed that some of my students can compute subtraction in their head and others need to break it down on paper. But could everyone do it in their head if they knew the method that worked best for them?

With small changes, we can make math feel a lot less like a sweaty, heart-racing, first-to-the-buzzer nightmare and more like solving problems with friends.

Picture a subtraction problem on the board: 260 – 224. I shout, “Who can do this in their head?” I don’t want the answer quickly. I just want to hear them think aloud. I hear such good things! Like “260 minus 224…well, 224 to 230 is six…and 230 to 260 is 30…so that all together is 36.”

While they talk, I transcribe on the board before asking another student, “Why are they adding? I thought we were subtracting.” Then they tell me what they believe their classmate was thinking. I’ll ask a third student, “You see how they were counting up from 224, right? Can you solve this subtraction by counting down?” They will: “260 to 230 is 30, and then six more down to 224.”

We close with a class poll: “Do you prefer to count down or up in your head?” The room is divided. Debates ensue.

We all solve problems using different tactics, but we’ll never know unless we externalize. Inviting students to share their way—no matter how obvious it may seem to you, the teacher who sees it all the time—will bolster the student who is sharing and may help something click for a student who is listening.

4. We revisit the past

At a math conference once, I saw my department head’s notebook. He’d written in huge letters, “Only give homework on old concepts.” My mind was blown: let homework be the review.

It doesn’t always have to be new, y’all. Re-administer your test from three months ago! That handout from October? Let it guest star in February! This emphasizes the journey, repeats exposure to concepts, and underscores that math is one giant relationship.

But most of all, this approach allows students to tangibly see their growth. What felt impossible a few months ago is (hopefully) a lot more doable now. Sure, many of us have our students do self-assessment, but do we have students revisit them? My favorite months-later comment includes, “Oh, my gosh, I used to think this skill was impossible! I wrote ‘idk’! But now, it’s one of the easiest for me.”

Thus the evolution of understanding: it’s okay that you don’t get it today. You will.

5. We celebrate demand wrong answers

With no exaggeration: my practice as a teacher was changed when I saw “My favorite no” in the video of Leah Alcala’s class on the Teaching Channel. She shares incorrect answers that are rich for exploring the concept more deeply. Instead of feeling shame, kids explain their—sometimes anonymous, sometimes not—mistakes. Now the error isn’t a dark embarrassment but, rather, an opportunity to help the rest of the class grow. Kids are no longer afraid of getting it wrong.

More amazingly, when I began using “My favorite no,” kids who initially requested that I not share their work very quickly rescinded this restriction, begging to be “featured.” It was only a matter of time before some devilishly started trying to craft a wrong answer, like Moriarty committing crimes for Sherlock to solve. Meanwhile, I noticed that the only way a student can design a wrong answer is by knowing the right one. Now who’s Moriarty?

What if it was all just solving problems with friends?

So many math teachers identify with Ms. Norbury, Tina Fey’s character in Mean Girls, as she fights the noble battle of assembling a math team. In my experience, the struggle is less because students worry they’ll be labeled a nerd (as in the film) and more because they’ll be exposed as a failure. They believe they shouldn’t participate in any kind of a math team because they aren’t mathematical prodigies. For me, this truth emerged in a dialogue between me and a student who has historically struggled to keep up with a typical math curriculum.

Me: I think you should join the math team!

Student: No, thanks.

Me: Why not?

Student: Because I wouldn’t know the answers, and the team will lose because of me.

Me: What if it wasn’t a competition? Would it be more interesting to you if it was just solving problems with friends?

Student and an eavesdropping student nearby: Yes!

The sincerity and simplicity of this interaction shouldn’t have shocked me, but it did. And it made me realize that most of the math opportunities at school feel like a competition: Problem on the board? Better raise your hand first! Math test today? Better finish on time! This extends into adulthood: Got the check? Better calculate the tip, stat!

It doesn’t have to be this way. At home, we can begin to undo the “not a math person” language and implement a patient, yes-we-can, growth mindset approach. At school, we must recognize ways we inadvertently reinforce these myths that we all grew up believing.

With small changes, we can make math feel a lot less like a sweaty, heart-racing, first-to-the-buzzer nightmare and more like solving problems with friends.

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