“I am bad at math.”
If you are a math teacher, you’ve likely heard this statement many times.
It is usually followed up with
“I don’t like math.”
Or the ever so popular trite,
“When am I ever going to use this in my real life?”
Math teachers hear these phrases or similar ones every day. When a student feels they are bad at something, they do not like it and wonder why they are asked to do it.
So how do we help students stop feeling like they are bad at math?
The answer to that question is not simple. Reframing the way students think requires a shift in mindset by the adults who shape the way these students see themselves and the world around them. Transforming a limiting mindset is no easy feat. This change is possible, however, with intentional effort over time.
Mathematics Is Not Fixed
We treat math as if it is a fixed trait, like eye color. Some people are born with blue eyes, others with brown eyes. Likewise, we speak as if some are born good at math and others are born bad at math. Math proficiency or lack thereof is not a genetic trait. Being gifted in this subject is hardly as straightforward as having blue eyes.
Even the most skilled mathematicians had to work for years to achieve their level of expertise. Albert Einstein (the modern personification of a genius) famously said,
“Do not worry about your difficulties in mathematics. I can assure you mine are still greater.”
Students are often made to feel as if math is “fixed” and that being bad at it is not only a commonality but a predetermined reality. They fail before they even get a chance to try.
This is driven by math anxiety, which is quite customary in American culture. A fixed way of thinking about math originates in the minds of students’ parents, grandparents, educators, and other influential figures that are involved in their life on a consistent basis. This mindset is then inevitably passed along to young learners, inducing “math anxiety.”
Success Is Born From Failure
The road to success in mathematics is similar to that of piano, baseball, soccer, or other meaningful pursuits. It is paved by hard work and consistency.
Do we scold the toddler who falls down after taking her first step for fear that she will never walk? Do we tell the child who hits the wrong piano key while practicing that he is simply “bad at piano?” Of course not. We cheer for their effort and encourage them to continue trying, failing, and trying again.
People who are good at math tend to spend a lot of time doing math.
They also tend to get many answers wrong. It’s likely that the skilled mathematician has gotten many more answers wrong in their lifetime than the average person who proclaims themselves “bad at math.”
But those who are skilled in math are not demoralized or defined by their mistakes, they are invigorated by the opportunity to better themselves by challenging their thinking.
“Hm, that didn’t work out the way I expected; I wonder why?”
This question leads to testing a new problem-solving method, and potentially a few more until the solution is found.
Students need to see failure as a natural part of life. They need to adopt a “growth mindset.”
The Growth Mindset
In her book Mindset, Carol Dwek shines a light on this very idea, saying:
“In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment[.]”
What if a child saw their parents, teachers, and other important figures take risks and tolerate embarrassment on a regular basis? Imagine the shift in perspective!
We can all do a better job seeking out challenges and accepting, even celebrating, failure as a natural part of the learning process. There is no growth in the comfort zone and there is no comfort in the growth zone.
Carol again reminds us:
“not to waste time proving over and over how great you are, when you could be getting better. Why hide deficiencies instead of overcoming them? Why look for friends or partners who will just shore up your self-esteem instead of ones who will also challenge you to grow? And why seek out the tried and true, instead of experiences that will stretch you? The passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it, even (or especially) when it’s not going well, is the hallmark of the growth mindset. This is the mindset that allows people to thrive during some of the most challenging times in their lives.”
The growth mindset plays a pivotal role in student progress both academically and in everyday life. Not to mention, adopting this new way of thinking will equip young people for future success in the 21st century workforce.
How Can You Help Your Students?
Students are more willing to engage in hard problems if they do not fear losing face in front of their peers. As adults, we can help by personally demonstrating our own passion for leaning into fear and failing a time or two (or ten). We can create a culture where failure is not embarrassing, but normal.
In doing so, we create a safe space for young learners to try, fail, and ultimately thrive.
So set the example. Find something that you are “not good at” and commit to doing it. Do it today. Then do it again tomorrow, and the next day. Share your experiences with your students or kids.
Normalize dedication and consistency in spite of failure and the statement,
“I am bad at math. I can’t do it.”
“It’s okay. I am still learning.”