Thursday, February 28, 2013

Math Mindset

For quite some time, I have thought about how I will be able to engage my students in learning. It seems that many students do not want to participate or try in math classes because of one reason or another. Too often I hear people say that they are "just not good at math" or that they cannot "do math" because their parents were not good at it. I want to make sure my students do not have that mindset.

To me, it seems that there is a difference in the way people think about math versus other subjects. In my experience, people believe that there are two types of students: those who can do math and those who cannot. Of course, I do not believe this. I believe that everyone can "do math" as long as they put some effort into it. Whenever I think about the different learning styles and when people say that math is not their subject, I think about how it's different than other subjects. Math is just another subject in school. Sure it has to deal with numbers and abstract concepts sometimes (Oh and don't forget when they start adding in letters!), but really, is it any different than any other subject? You still have to learn how to use proper grammar for English or wait the correct amount of time for a note in music or recognize different movements based on the time period in history. Even after years upon years of math classes, I still have to learn how to do some concepts in math. No one is immune to the necessity of learning.

As we grow older, certain subjects can seem easier and others harder but the purpose of school, of subjects, is to discover what you need to learn and help you learn. This is where the concept of a growth mindset versus a fixed mindset comes in handy. It takes a certain mindset to succeed, no matter what the objective is. If our students are set on the fixed, I-can't-do-it-because-it's-math mindset, they could potentially hold onto that poor self-concept in other parts of life.

At the 2013 SDSTA/SDCTM joint conference, I discussed fixed and growth mindsets with some teachers in the field. We all agreed that one of the most dangerous ideas in terms of learning math is having a fixed mindset rather than a growth mindset. It's the idea of "I don't know this stuff and I never will" versus "I don't know this stuff but I can learn." Building off this is one of my favorite phrases: confidence is key. You have to be able to believe in yourself and your capacity for learning otherwise you'll remain fixed rather than expanding what you know.

The big question is: How do we get our students to recognize the difference between the two mindsets and encourage them to grow?

I don't think I have an answer for this cosmic question. In fact, I don't know if I will ever have a perfect answer. Will anyone ever be able to come up with some formula to solve this mystery?

The problem is that there cannot be a fixed answer. Our classrooms and our students are dynamic. All we can do is encourage students to keep a growth mindset and show them that yes, they can figure out how long it takes Train B to catch up to Train A.