Help Your Child Develop a Mathematical Growth MindsetSep 08, 2022
Many believe that some people are born with a “math brain” and some are not. However, recent work by Jo Boaler and Carol Dweck has shown us that there is no such thing as a “math person.” Everyone can learn math, given the right conditions. One thing we can do to help students learn is support them in developing a mathematical growth mindset.
A growth mindset is essential to being a successful mathematician. Those with a growth mindset believe that they can learn and grow with hard work. They value mistakes and consider them as motivation to learn more. Those with a fixed mindset believe that intelligence is fixed and there is nothing one can do about it. Having a growth mindset gives students power. Students believe that they can learn if they work at it. They are not easily discouraged by challenges. They know that the challenges will help them learn and grow.
Here are five things you can do to help your child develop this valuable way of thinking.
1. Believe that your child can learn math.
Your confidence in your child will help them develop their own confidence in themselves. Sometimes this step also involves changing your own thinking about your own math ability. You too can learn math. Research has shown us that comments like, “It’s OK if you don’t get this, I’m not a math person either,” are damaging to students. Parents’ own anxiety around math can affect their child’s learning. Instead, say to your child, “I don’t know how to solve this problem either. Let’s figure it out together.” You can also ask what kind of manipulative (actual or virtual) would help them solve the problem and then help them access that tool. Project the message that your child will be successful and you are there to offer support as they figure it out.
2. Value struggle as a part of learning.
If your child is struggling in math or doesn’t understand the ideas right away, this is a time when their brain is growing and new synapses are firing. It's actually an exciting moment! If we don’t encounter some disequilibrium, we aren’t learning. When everything is easy, we are just practicing things that we already know how to do, not learning new material. It is difficult to watch our children feeling discomfort and struggling but it is in that struggle that learning happens and that learning is something that we want for our children.
3. Embrace challenges and risk taking.
Without challenges, we would not have the opportunity to engage in the struggle that leads to learning. Facing a problem that we cannot immediately solve or taking a risk with a solution or pathway that might not lead to the answer require courage and perseverance and are important parts of learning. Help your child value wrestling with a challenging problem, even if they cannot see the answer right away.
Carol Dweck and Jo Boaler have popularized the “power of yet.” The idea is that students may not yet understand something now but they will understand it in the future. “I don’t understand multiplication….yet.” “I cannot figure out how to solve this problem…yet.” By adding this one word to these statements, it implies that students WILL be able to be successful, they just need more time to get there.
4. Praise children for working hard, not for being smart.
Being smart is a fixed idea – you either are or are not smart. Working hard is something that everyone can do and everyone has control over. We want children to understand that success comes from hard work and persevering with difficult problems. Compliment your child with words that celebrate their effort. You might say something like, “You worked really hard on that.” Or “I can tell that problem was difficult and you stuck with it.”
5. Reframe your thinking about the attributes of a skilled mathematician.
Mathematics is flexible and is all about understanding and sense making. Skilled mathematicians find patterns, make connections, explain their work, and persevere with tricky problems. Let go of the idea that being fast at math = being good at math. Knowledge of math facts is easy to measure and thus many people use it as a measure of students’ skill in mathematics. However, math facts are only a small part of mathematics. In fact, “Math anxiety has now been recorded in students as young as five, and timed tests are a major cause of this debilitating, often lifelong condition.” (Boaler, 2015) Instead let’s use our broader definition of a skilled mathematician and celebrate when students see patterns, develop their own theories and explain their thinking to us.
Students who feel successful in math will continue to pursue math. Building a positive attitude towards math starts in the youngest students with building a mathematical growth mindset. My experience has shown that if students don’t experience a feeling of success in math by 5th grade, they will likely not pursue higher math. Changing your own language and beliefs around math can help your child have positive experiences. Developing a mathematical growth mindset will benefit students in math and the same perspectives will benefit them in other aspects of life as well.
Boaler, J. (2015). Mathematical Mindsets: Unleashing Students’ Potential Through Creative Math, Inspiring Messages and Innovative Teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 38.