6 Strategies for Building a Positive Math Mindset | exSTEMsions
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6 Strategies for Building a Positive Math Mindset

May 25, 2020

Why do people think they can’t do math?

If I had a nickel for every time someone said to me, “no, I’m not a math person,” I would be a seriously rich woman at this point. It’s something I hear a lot from students, but also from friends, family members, colleagues, and the occasional stranger who happens to ask what I do during polite conversation (as happened on a recent flight).

As we have pointed out (and will continue to!) on our blog, there is no such thing as not being a “math person”. So, then how is it that so many of us are convinced that math is something we just can’t do? There are many reasons, and they run the gamut from that one bad teacher that turned you off, to being told that you can’t do math by someone you love or trust. There are plenty of valid life-experiences, like these, that can make someone dislike any particular subject. Even something as simple as a friend or family member saying that they don’t like math, or aren’t good at it, is enough to make someone else start to feel that way too.

Being friends with math is all about mindset

Here is the issue, for me, as a teacher and a parent: every time you say, “I am not a math person,” your kids hear you. And they might think, “well, maybe I’m not a math person either”. And when that happens, we continue a cycle of “not being a math person” into a new generation of kids, who might actually have enjoyed and excelled at math if only they had thought about it a little differently.

For me, math is about mindset. I definitely don’t know all the math that’s out there, but I believe that if I had to, I could figure it all out (even if it was super painful, and took me a long, long, long time). This belief is what has allowed me to be comfortable with math. I was not born any better at math than anyone else. I didn’t always “get” it in school - in fact, I struggled, for years on end. Yet here I am, today, friends with math, because I believed I could be, which allowed me to confidently put in the time and effort that was necessary to make that friendship work. And let’s make that clear: your friendship with math will also have to be built on hard work, patience, and persistence!

And what did I learn through all of my mathematical hard work? That, for certain, you and your kids can be friends with math too!


Strategies to improve math mindset

It can’t be that easy to excel at math - belief and mindset alone can’t be enough, right? They aren’t, but they are a key underpinning for success in math (and just about anything else!). When you believe that you can conquer something, obstacles that might stop someone else might simply be bumps in the road for you, that you can overcome with hard work. When you believe, you keep trying. And that is the key - belief and positive mindset precede the work, and allow you to keep going, even when the going is tough.

You can actively build a more positive mindset about math. You can also help your kids build their own positive mindsets about math. This in turn will help to build the next generation of kids who think, “I believe I can figure that out!” rather than “no, I can’t do math”.

Here are some simple, practical strategies that can help you get started:

  1. Replace “I can’t do math” or “I’m not a math person” with “I am still learning.” Often we get discouraged if we can’t immediately solve a math problem at first glance. But if you’ve never picked up a paint can before, would you expect to open a paint business and be immediately successful? Being successful in anything takes time, because it takes time to learn, to process what you have in front of you, to think. You may not immediately understand how to solve a particular math problem, but you can eventually figure it out. And if your “eventually” takes way longer than someone else’s, that’s okay; it’s not about what someone else can do, it’s about what you can do. Give it some time, because you are still learning. Your kids are still learning. Learning is never finished, and that is truly a wonderful thing.
  2. Rethink “failure”. Many of us have been in this situation: we attack a math problem in a particular way, it doesn’t work out, and then we just give up, because we think we’ve failed. But remember we’re always learning, and when something doesn’t go as planned, that “failure” is not actually a failure; it’s a learning opportunity. Try again, see what happens. Stuck again? Then try again! Experimenting to see what works isn’t special to math; there are so many areas of life where we are expected to try things over and over until we succeed: cooking, playing sports, even getting good at your favorite video game! Your kids need to know that math doesn’t need to be any different: if something goes haywire, then experiment, adjust, try again. Keep at it, and help your kids keep at it; success will come.
  3. Speak kindly about math. This is different from #1 - saying “I’m still learning this terrible subject” situates us as learners, yes, but doesn’t exactly foster a positive mindset about math! Instead of talking about the things we don’t like about math, talk about the ways math is important in our daily lives and society at large. Math keeps your car moving; encrypts your text messages; allows us to communicate to loved ones halfway across the globe; puts your favorite shows on your smart TV, and so much more! There is math everywhere, and it helps us to do amazing things, but it also helps us do simple things, like calculate the tip at dinner, or make sure that delicious pie you’re baking doesn’t burn. Math supports you and your kids every day, and it’s time to give it a little more appreciation! And when our children appreciate and realize how important math is to all of us, it puts math in a positive light… and our kids might even be interested to learn a little more about it!
  4. Value effort. When we do math, the answer is important; the world depends on math supplying correct answers! But when we are learning, it’s not only about the answer, but about the process of doing math, about how we work: how we use the skills and strategies we’re practicing, how we think. And even if we don’t arrive at the correct answer, it doesn’t mean everything we did was wrong. The effort that we applied to the problem, even though we may not have arrived at the answer, is important. That effort allows us to practice, experiment, innovate, learn! And we bet that if you examine your effort carefully, you will find that you were right about a lot of things along the way! The effort and process that our kids apply when doing math deserves our praise and appreciation, no matter the outcome. And if the answer isn’t exactly right - well, try again!
  5. Value mistakes. Mistakes are normal. Moreover, they are important, because we can understand things about math, and understand how we understand math, by analyzing our mistakes, seeing where we went wrong, and then trying something new. Thoughtfully considering your mistakes, and understanding that you can move forward from them, reinforces all kinds of important positive mindsets: believing in yourself, using your “failures” to your own advantage, being patient, and appreciating the effort you put into the problem. We all make mistakes, but if you show your kids the power of mistakes, and treat mistakes as opportunities to learn and grow, you give your kids the gift of being able to view mistakes in a more positive light in their own lives.
  6. Be patient. No one is good at anything overnight, and math is no exception. It’s important to accept that learning takes time, but more than that, building our positive mindset is going to take some time too! Getting to know math better, and framing our minds to allow us to do just that, require us to take things slowly, to persist in the face of discomfort, and to be patient as we improve our skills and mindset, step by step. If we accept that, remind our kids that the struggle is worth it, and help them through that struggle, then not only do we release the pressure that builds when our kids learn something challenging, but we will slowly see them become friends with math!

And one more thing to note - building a positive math mindset is incredibly worthwhile, even beyond the math realm; that positive mindset will extend to all kinds of other thinking. Math skills include problem solving and critical thinking skills, and these skills are life skills! Imagine your kids going out into the world thinking, “I may not get it right away, but I will get it!” Wouldn’t that be a great way to approach math, and life?

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