PANTHER PAUSE: Math and the power of yet
“When I think about math I cringe and feel anxiety.”
“A lot of people have said to me, ‘Math isn’t your thing, but that’s OK because something else will be your thing.’”
“I feel really stupid. I feel like I don’t belong in any math classroom. When I think about math it basically drives me away from pursuing any education after I graduate from high school, IF I graduate.”
“I was never any good in math when I was in school, and my son is the same way. I feel for him because he’s not gonna ‘get it’ just like I didn’t ‘get it.’”
How many times have we heard statements and sentiments like these? The foundation for this way of thinking is the notion that math ability is innate. In other words, you either have the “gene” that allows you to understand math or you don’t. When students or adults believe that math ability is either something you have or you don’t have, they enter into situations involving math with extreme anxiety or believe that they are just not smart enough to be successful. Some give up after a cursory effort or won’t even try. They think, “What’s the point of trying? I won’t understand it.”
When parents experienced these thoughts and feelings as a student, they may unintentionally pass a math learning barrier onto their children. When parents talk about their own math abilities as limited, children listen and can easily believe that they, too, will not be good in math. Children may think, “Mom (or Dad) can do all sorts of “hard stuff” but if she (or he) can’t do math, I probably won’t be able to, either.” Even if the parent voices the belief that “I wasn’t any good in math but my daughter is smart, and she’ll figure it out,” the message is that math skill is only attainable by some.
But when students or adults believe that math ability can be developed, their encounters with numbers can be drastically different. People who have a growth mindset believe that abilities such as math can be improved, while people with a fixed mindset believe that ability to learn is a fixed trait. People with a fixed mindset think of ability to learn kind of like eye color. They believe that you're born with a certain amount of ability, and you can't do much to change that.
People with a growth mindset think of math ability more like a muscle. They understand that when you put in effort and challenge yourself, you can become more skilled, just like when you put in effort at the gym and challenge yourself by lifting heavier weights to make your muscles stronger. Instead of walking away from math tasks, they welcome them as the opportunity to learn. Mistakes are considered an important part of learning and nothing to feel badly about. With this mindset, an individual optimistically views unknown information and undeveloped skills as “Things I don’t know yet.”